Film: Death Notice: Ikigami **
Release date: 7th March 2011
Running time: 128 mins
Director: Tomoyuki Takimoto
Starring: Shota Matsuda, Koji Tsukamoto, Riko Narumi, Takayuki Yamada, Akira Emoto
Reviewer: Adam Wing
If you had 24 hours left to live, how would you spend it? That’s the thought provoking question raised in Takimoto Tomoyuki’s bleak futuristic drama Death Notice - Ikigami.
To encourage productivity among citizens, the Japanese government has introduced its own process of unnatural selection - all people between the ages of 18 and 24 are eligible for a death lottery. The twist being that you don't have to buy a ticket, an injection at the age of six puts pay to that. Those chosen to die are served an "ikigami", or death notice, 24 hours before their reckoning. Fujimoto Kengo's job is to deliver that ikigami - give me a desk job any day. Matsuda Shota (Hana Yori Dango: Final) plays the modern messenger of death, brought to life from the pages of Mase Motoro's popular manga.
Set in a dystopian Japan where Big Brother is always watching, the film attempts to explore the value of life under the cloud of death through Fujimoto's various encounters on the job. Death Notice traces the last 24 hours of three very different ‘volunteers’, each providing a unique perspective on the unerring ruling: a wannabe pop star (Yuta Kanai) grasping at his last shot of stardom, a suicidal man (Kazuma Sano) disorientated by life, and a loving brother desperate to restore his sister’s sight.
Death Note - Ikigami features an all-star cast that includes the likes of Tsukamato Takashi (Song to the Sun), Narumi Riko (How to Become Myself), and Yamada Takayuki (Train Man). The concept is nothing short of ambitious, and Takimoto Tomoyuki’s movie touches on radical themes throughout. Not only are the nations young randomly selected for death, but the Japanese government also sees fit to punish anyone guilty of ‘thought crimes’, a re-education program that keeps the public inline. The cameras littered around the city offer an ominous view of control and entrapment, used sparingly by Yomoyuki; this Big Brother style perspective results in a threatening depiction of regulation and order.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, upon receiving the ikigami, the condemned are allowed 24 hours to do pretty much what they want, just so long as they don’t commit a crime. A Government compensation plan is put into place for the families of the victims, but that right is taken away should the condemned choose to go on a bloody rampage. A neat twist it has to be said, unless of course the person sentenced to death has an unhealthy distaste for the remains of their family tree. Like I said before, Death Notice touches on some interesting themes, but Takimoto Tomoyuki is guilty of undercooking the fresh meat of his dish. Like many Japanese dramas these days, Ikigami resorts to daytime TV sentimentality, taking the taste away from a very potent mix.
The first story gets the lion’s share of the running time, and makes for an engaging journey for the most part. It’s not until the end of the trip that Tomoyuki turns on the tears, overreaching with emotional baggage and weighing down some fine performances in the process. Kengo acts as bystander for the most part, looking on as the clock ticks down. He’s undeniably shaken by the situation but continues to follow the rules to the letter, it’s not until the final journey begins that we get to see his loyalty truly tested. Interfering with the condemned is not permitted, but human nature takes precedence over right and wrong and the final act benefits from sympathetic characters and bearable emotion.
Takimoto Tomoyuki has taken an alluring idea and turned it into an occasionally affecting drama, what he hasn’t done is made the most of an arresting concept and themes. The fascinating topics are neglected in favour of melodrama, merely hinted at rather than fully explored. It’s a shame because there’s a world of ideas threatening to break free here, but they fail to make a splash trapped inside a soap opera bubble unwilling to burst. Further instalments could expand upon the central conceit, helping to answer the many questions hinted at in this humble beginning. As things stand, Death Notice intrigues but never truly captivates.
Lofty ideas, ingenious concepts and thought provoking themes are put to one side in favour of melodrama, sentiment and overreaching emotion. There is a lot of good here, but Tomoyuki spends far too much of his two hour running time repeating the same worn out line. Death Notice - Ikigami satisfies in small doses, but time will tell if a second instalment can make good on its groundwork.