Death Notice - Ikigami Review

A live action adaptation of Mase Motoro’s successful manga comic, Death Notice - Ikigami succeeds where other such film adaptations often fail. It’s pretty much a straightforward transposition of the book to the screen, but literal adaptations often fail to come to life when leave the page and become live-action, either because the material either isn’t suited to the realism of the screen, or that there’s just too much storyline to condense realistically down into two hours. It’s to Ikigami’s advantage then that not only is the episodic nature of the storyline better suited to adaptation, but the themes of the story and their treatment would be intriguing and involving in whatever medium they were presented. Those themes not only take in a government policy that controls the populace in a sinister science-fiction context, but through it the story also asks serious philosophical questions about the nature of life and death in a way that anyone can relate to meaningfully.

In a time of peace, the Japanese government have initiated the Maintenance of National Prosperity Law, under which a number of the population, seemingly at random, will die between the ages of 18 - 24. The cause of death is determined by an injection that every child is obliged to take along with inoculations. 0.1% of the injections contain a lethal drug within a nanocapsule that is released at a specified time before the age of 25. Although the injections are randomly distributed and no-one knows if they carry the lethal capsule, the information is recorded and a death notice is issued to the victim 24 hours before the due time of death. For those last 24 hours, the named victim is given free transport, food and lodging, and the time they need to say their farewells and prepare for death, and the family of the deceased is paid a pension. Evidently, not everyone reacts quite so dispassionately to the news of their impending death, but pension rights will be withheld for anyone who attempts to use the time to seek justice or vengeance for what has happened to them.

The premise might sound unlikely, but there’s a method in the madness that makes it credible, and really, is the selection of young people of a certain age to die at random any more absurd than introducing national service or conscription to oblige young citizens to fight in the army and die randomly that way? Ikigami (the “Death Notice” prefix to has been added to the English title partly to make the name more meaningful – and it is appropriate – but it probably does no harm to be mistaken for Death Note) looks at the possible social and psychological impact of such a policy through a number of examples of youths who receive a Death Notice, while at the same time, looking at it from the perspective of one of the young men whose job it is to deliver these terrible unwanted notifications – an unenviable job that is made more difficult due to the rule that forbids any interference in the last remaining hours of the “subjects”.

While there is something peculiarly Japanese about this situation and its consideration of the nature of the individuality and humanity being subsumed by duty for the sake of National Prosperity, it’s how humanity acts in the face of this unnatural act that underpins the intrigue and gives the story its overpowering impact. Using a couple of examples – one of a young singer-songwriter who is on the edge of breaking it big in the music industry, one of a young man who wishes to use his impending death to donate his cornea to his blind sister, and one of a young man who is the son of a ruthless politician campaigning for election in full support of the Law - Ikigami demonstrates that the knowledge of certain imminent death does indeed enhance life and reinforce its value, not just for the victim, but for those around them and indeed everyone, since it could happen to anyone up until the age of 25. It enhances the value of life perhaps, but how can it be judged to be humane?

The vast majority of the film is taken from the manga Ikigami Volume 1 alone, which is to the film’s advantage in that it captures the whole premise and essence of the story in all its necessary depth and detail. It does so moreover while being utterly faithful and effective in its creation of mood and the dark, bleak tone of the realistically-drawn and plotted original story. While the remainder of the manga series continues to develop the concept through other “life stories”, and continue the plot of deliveryman Fujimoto’s growing “thought crime” concerns about the nature of the work he does for the Ministry of Health and Welfare, there is the danger that they can become repetitive and just feel like a series of sentimental melodramas. The whole idea is here in essence in the film and it doesn’t require any follow-up, but anyone who wants more can find it in the manga series.

Death Notice: Ikigami is released by MVM on DVD only. The DVD is Region 2 encoded and is in PAL format. The transfer exhibits the usual issues involved with standards conversion from an NTSC source to PAL in the form of interlacing, but it at least avoids the issue of PAL speed-up. It’s a relatively minor consideration however, and largely unnoticeable. The colour schemes are intentionally muted and come across well, the image transferred at the original ratio of 1.85:1. The soundtrack is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0, and it performs well with adequate clarity and fidelity. English subtitles are white and of an appropriate size, clearly readable against the image. The subs are mandatory, but player generated rather than fixed on the transfer. If played in fast forward or through freeze-frame they are not visible appear and are therefore not burnt onto the frame, but there does not appear to be any method of removing them, should you even want to. The only extra feature on the DVD is the Trailer and teaser (2:07) for the film.

Ikigami is a dark and intriguing little film – well made, with good acting, strong characters and an involving and thought-provoking storyline. An adaptation of mainly only of Volume 1 of the manga series, the film is in some ways only a taster for concepts explored in further episodic detail, but there are benefits to be gained from keeping the story self-contained and, within the context of the film, it manages to sum up the whole intent without any lessening of the overall impact.

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