Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 is a plea for empathy amidst broken systems that leave the most vulnerable and elderly. The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at Cannes 2022 and is Japan’s entry for Best International Film at the 2023 Oscars.
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Tender and devastatingly unsentimental, Chie Hayakawa’s feature debut, Plan 75, is a plea for empathy and a damning indictment of a world that more and more sees people as disposable. Set in a dystopian Japan where the government has made assisted dying accessible to anyone who is at least seventy-five years old through “Plan 75” — regardless of their medical conditions — the world of Plan 75 is depressingly close to the euthanasia programs already happening in the world. In Canada, MAID means that if you can no longer afford to manage your chronic illness, the government will help you die rather than help you live; in 2023, that will include mental illnesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Sweden decided which elderly people with COVID would receive oxygen versus life-ending morphine based on whether or not they were non-disabled enough to live independently.
Hayakawa follows three protagonists — and a few people they encounter — to represent the different sides of the Plan 75 scheme. Our perspective character is Michi (an exquisite Chieko Baisho), a 78-year-old woman who gets beaten down bit by bit until Plan 75 seems like the only solution. She meets twentysomething Hiromu (Hayato Isomura) as her case officer, who helps her fill out the paperwork. We follow him through his job as he slowly realises it’s predatory — starting with making park benches uncomfortable to sleep on (a widely used strategy around the world to make homelessness more inconvenient), to preying on the most vulnerable to persuade them to end their lives, and thus end their burden on society. Finally, there’s Filipino migrant worker, Maria (Stefanie Arianne), who discovers there’s better pay in disposing of the euthanised elderly’s belongings of Plan 75 than in caring for the elderly at a nursing home.
In an early scene, a wide shot from far away follows Michi as she struggles up the small hill to her apartment building. She checks her mail, only to discover it’s all junk mail. She enters her apartment, which though small and modest, is warm and homey, bathed in natural light, full of plants and the signs and belongings of a life lived, if a lonely one. As Michi gets more hopeless throughout the film, Hayakawa increasingly shoots Michi’s apartment with less and less sunlight, later and later in the day. The next time we see Michi’s journey home, she’s glimpsed in a wide shot through a fence, a subtle visual metaphor for how her choices are collapsing around her. She’s just lost her job as a hotel maid, because the hotel doesn’t want the liability of employing seniors who could get injured at work. When she walks into her building, she’s about to encounter a notice saying her building is due for demolition. Unemployed in a world that already discriminates against the elderly, the chances of finding housing and a new job seem slim.
For Michi, it’s death by a thousand papercuts. Hayakawa doesn’t show these cuts happening, just the defeated face and body of the woman experiencing them. A friend’s injury at work, which will prompt Michi to get laid off, happens offscreen, only to be heard and not seen. We never see Michi get fired, only her packing up her belongings, trying to figure out what to do next; as her colleagues talk idly about what they might or might not do, she must reply, “As you know, I’m alone in the world. I have to find another job.” We don’t see her arduous journey to try to find housing, only her last resort, and we (and she) overhear the results of her inquiry in a phone call she’s not part of. In that scene, Hayakawa positions us behind the real estate agent so we’re close to the phone call, but looking at Michi’s defeated face. We find out that nobody is willing to help her when she calls a friend to see if she can take the job the friend had available but didn’t want, only to be cut off abruptly and told she’s called at an inconvenient time.
Ironically, the one place Michi does find emotional support is through the Plan 75 program. When she wants to sign up, a friendly case worker in a busy, well-staffed office helps her with the paperwork. By contrast, when she finally resigns herself to applying to welfare, it’s just a single electronic kiosk with a sign stating there are no more consultations for the day. As part of Plan 75, she’s assigned a caseworker who calls her regularly for fifteen-minute conversations that are abruptly cut off. The caseworker also informs Michi that they have a 24-hour hotline. Of course, nobody is there to support the elderly if they don’t plan to imminently kill themselves. It’s through these phone calls that we learn about Michi’s backstory, the things she’s endured but never talks about. It’s only at the end that we learn the purpose of these calls is to prevent people from getting cold feet and not going through with assisted dying.
During his work with Plan 75, Hiromu comes face to face with his estranged uncle who wants to die, and has shown up to fill out the paperwork on his seventy-fifth birthday. Through reconnecting with him, he starts to question his work at Plan 75. Are they helping people or preying on the most vulnerable in a society that doesn’t want to have to deal with them? If Michi’s existence seemed lonely and wareing, Hiromu’s uncle’s is worse: he seems totally alone, without even the semblance of friends, and lives in an apartment so sparse, it looks like he’s just moved in. He’s pretty much already given up when he meets Hiromu again, and they’re both too politely withdrawn to broach the distance of many years; plus, that would be counter to Hiromu’s job.
Hayakawa’s world building in Plan 75 is exquisite and understated, often informing us of new edicts for Plan 75 through radio broadcasts in the background. Through her three protagonists and the people they meet along the way, Hayakawa constructs a whole complex system — and industrial assisted suicide complex — and imagines how it would work. State-sponsored mass murder is always in the mundane details, as films like Quo Vadis, Aida? and A Radiant Girl have shown so incisively. Hayakawa shows this, too, but by seeing the people keeping Plan 75 going, she also demonstrates the emotional toll this job has on them. As a care worker, Maria would smile at work with the knowledge she was helping people; as a Plan 75 scavenger, she’s miserable all the time, but making enough money to help pay for her daughter’s medically necessary surgery. Near the end of the film, we get private glimpses of Michi’s caseworker and how much she hates herself for what she’s doing. But we also know, from Michi’s house hunt, that it’s a brutal world out there, and these young people making Plan 75 happen are just trying to get by.
It’s the mark of an excellent film that when watching Plan 75, I thought of Ken Loach’s work, especially his Palme d’Or Winner I, Daniel Blake, which is often more explicitly preachy than Hayakawa’s understated plea for empathy. The stolen scenes between Michi and her young caseworker recalled Ikiru, but here, it’s the state that’s predatory rather than the individuals. In Ikiru, the state was incredibly efficient at not helping anyone with anything useful, and in Plan 75, it’s just as efficient at ensuring the elderly die soon. Ultimately, the power of Plan 75 is in how much it lets us care for the characters, and offers them the opportunity to at least begin to care for each other, while presenting us a world that makes this as difficult as possible.
In a world where we’re regularly sacrificing the elderly and disabled for a “return to normal” which includes mass deaths and pandemic denial, Plan 75 seems incredibly timely. But the idea behind it predates the pandemic, and as the film’s grammar constantly reminds us, the elderly’s woes are often out of focus and easy to ignore. The pandemic just made it more obvious that we’ve been looking away for a long time.
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