Plan 75: sombre euthanasia movie captures the escalating anxieties around ageing

Hayakawa Chie’s dystopian debut about an opt-in euthanasia scheme for the elderly is less an argument about the merits and ills of the practice than a searing interrogation of how capitalism has made it too expensive to grow old with dignity.

9 May 2023

By Sara Merican

Plan 75 (2022)Plan 75 (2022) © Courtesy of Curzon
Sight and Sound

With Plan 75, director Hayakawa Chie begins her feature film career by posing a moral question about the end of life. In her imagining, the Japanese government, following a spate of hate crimes against the elderly, introduces an opt-in-euthanasia scheme, ‘Plan 75’, for those aged 75 and above. 

Hayakawa’s remarkably muted way of rendering brutality, dissent and the devastating chasm between generations is apparent from the outset. A massacre at a care home for the elderly is suggested by a blood-splattered gun and the rotating wheel of a fallen wheelchair. Plan 75 is executed by young and middle-aged civil servants with breezy nonchalance and bureaucratic efficiency; colourless gas sends the initiative’s participants gently into that good night. Even the one act of resistance to the plan is represented in the most understated way: we see only the impact of brown liquid on a poster, thrown by someone offscreen.

Hayakawa’s quietly realist treatment of the dystopian premise makes for haunting viewing. The mellow dialogue and casual pacing suggest an absence of conflict. But it is precisely the ordinariness of Plan 75’s visual scheme that pricks the viewer’s conscience: it is disconcertingly easy to imagine the plan being implemented in many countries with ageing populations.

The sombre, noirish sensibilities of cinematographer Urata Hideho – who previously shot the darkly incisive, Golden Leopard-winning Singaporean film A Land Imagined (2018) – help convey the sense that not all may be well. Unease can be detected in the glance two Plan 75 participants give each other on their deathbeds; in a shared car ride between two recently reconciled relatives; in the lonely glare of a small, dimly lit apartment.

At first glance, Plan 75’s inductees are willing parties. Hayakawa’s exposition-heavy first half shows us how participants are provided with a 24/7 chatline, afterlife arrangements and a ¥100,000 reward. But as we become acquainted with the rich inner lives of two characters in particular, Michi (Baishō Chieko) and Yukio (Takao Taka), we learn that they have less agency over their decisions than one might imagine.

Baishō Chieko as Michi in Plan 75 (2022)
Baishō Chieko as Michi in Plan 75 (2022)
Courtesy of Curzon

It becomes clear that ageing with dignity is not just an ethical question but an economic one. Indeed, Hayakawa’s stirring film is less an argument about the merits and ills of euthanasia than a searing interrogation of how capitalism has made it too expensive to grow old with dignity. As housing precarity, unemployment and unwieldy application processes for pension schemes chisel away at the characters’ self-esteem, the movie makes it clear that in a neoliberal schema, the elderly are simply a hindrance to Japan’s financial growth and technological progress. The initiative of the title embodies a telling inconsistency in the government’s approach to elder care: for all the plan’s talk of the dignity of death, scant effort or resources are put towards enabling a dignified life.

The bulk of the work of caring for the geriatric population in the film has fallen on the shoulders of migrant workers like Maria (Stefanie Arianne), from the Philippines – an example of how ‘unwanted’ jobs in countries like Japan have propped up booming remittance economies in other parts of Asia. We first see Maria working at an elderly care home, but she is hard-pressed for money: her daughter has a heart disease and requires surgery. An acquaintance tips Maria off about a better-paying job with Plan 75, which involves sorting the belongings of the deceased. Maria witnesses a colleague pocketing valuable items, and is encouraged by this colleague to do the same. Even in death, society is set up to wrest every last cent of value from a person’s life.

Maria is cheered on by her community as she fights for every dollar to nurse her young but sick daughter back to health – yet society barely flinches at Plan 75, which pushes many healthy elderly people to choose euthanasia in the name of national duty and self-sacrifice. At one point, Maria falls asleep at work, and a vision of an old person lying on a hospital bed gives way to an image of a young girl sitting by a window. It’s the visual equivalent of a rhetorical question: is the sanctity of life contingent on one’s age?

Plan 75 expresses the escalating anxieties about one’s silver years in Japan, which has one of the world’s most rapidly ageing populations. But the film’s exploration of life’s sacredness, and its tender portrait of elderly relationships, transcend cultural specificities; it’s a resonant lesson in humanism.

Plan 75 arrives in UK cinemas from May 12. 

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