In this interview, writer-director Chie Hayakawa talks about asking tough questions and avoiding sentimentality in her first feature, Plan 75. She also discusses how the film reflects the increasing lack of empathy for the most vulnerable people in society in the real world.
Read Alex Heeney’s glowing review of Plan 75 from Cannes 2022 here. The review also serves as additional good context for our interview with Chie Hayakawa on Plan 75
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In this interview, Chie Hayakawa discusses her timely film Plan 75
When Chie Hayakawa’s Plan 75 premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2022, it felt like the best movie about the COVID-19 pandemic without being about the pandemic. It’s a film about how the world cares less and less for the most vulnerable people. It’s a society that prefers to offer assisted suicide to the elderly rather than caring for them. Hayakawa’s world was a light sci-fi imagining of a future Japan where assisted dying was readily available to anyone age 75 and older. It was not yet a reality in Japan, but the climate for it had been ignited.
Elsewhere in the world, the most vulnerable in society were already being let down, especially by COVID-19 policies. In March 2022, an article in the prestigious journal Nature revealed that Sweden’s official COVID-19 policy was eugenics in practice. Life-preservering treatments, like oxygen, were only offered to non-disabled elderly people who could live independently. Many disabled elderly people were left to die in nursing homes with morphine and no hope.
Though COVID-19 infections never actually went down, life expectancy decreased, and long-term outcomes worsened, the world was ready to pretend the pandemic was over. Mask mandates and COVID-19 precautions were slowly being dropped the world round, starting with Denmark, the United Kingdom, and soon enough, everywhere else. Mask mandates in healthcare ended in Ontario in June 2022.
About Plan 75
Plan 75 is a humanist, unsentimental ensemble drama centered around 78-year-old Michi (a fantastic Chieko Baisho). When the film begins, she’s gainfully employed, living independently, among a community of women friends. As the film progresses, she loses her job, then her home, and the possibility of crawling out of this mess seems less and less likely. She starts to see Japan’s new Plan 75 program as the only option. While Michi can’t even get an appointment to apply for welfare, Plan 75 welcomes her with open arms. The paperwork is easy. The staff are friendly. She can end her life and put an end to her problems. She even gets $1000 to spend in her last month however she chooses.
But Hayakawa slowly reveals that Plan 75 is predatory system, forcing vulnerable people to end their life by making it so much easier than preserving it. Through Plan 75, Michi meets caseworker Hiromu (Hayato Isomura), a well-dressed and ambitious young man, who helps her file paperwork. She gets assigned a mental health caseworker in Yoko (Yumi Kawai) for regular 15-minute phone calls.
And in the background is Maria (Stefanie Arianne), a Filippino migrant worker who gets stuck working for Plan 75 because she needs the money. As the film progresses, Hayakawa forces both the young characters and the audience to question their assumptions about Plan 75. Is it as nice and friendly as it seems? Or is it a troubling system symptomatic of a world without empathy.
Inside the interview with Chie Hayakawa on Plan 75
In April, I spoke to Hayakawa via Zoom to discuss imagining the world of Plan 75, and avoiding sentimentality and judgement. When I reviewed the film out of Cannes, it reminded me of Ken Loach’s social realist films, and recent stories about the paperwork behind fascism like Quo Vadis, Aida? and A Radiant Girl. Hayakawa had starker references in mind, in search of a dry, cold tone: from Michael Haneke to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017). She talked about developing the film’s aesthetic, the importance of sound design, and forcing her actors to hold in their emotions.
Seventh Row (7R): Where did the idea for the film Plan 75 come from?
Chie Hayakawa: The film is about a super-aging society. But that was not my interest originally. I wanted to raise a question about how our society is becoming more and more intolerant to socially weak people. It’s not only the elderly people, but also, poor and disabled people.
People, nowadays, often talk about the value of life based on their productivity. I’ve heard many discriminatory comments from politicians, celebrities, or influencers in Japan. They are very harsh toward the elderly, the disabled, and poor people. They influence public opinion, as well. Although these comments are very controversial, when we hear these comments, it actually influences public opinion, little by little. I feel the social atmosphere is so harsh on these people.
In Japan, there is a term called “self-responsibility”: everybody has to take care of themselves. It’s difficult for us to ask for help from other people, the government, and welfare. People are so scared to be a burden to someone or a burden to society. I was feeling a lot of anger towards our intolerant society. That triggered me to make this film.
In this interview, Chie Hayakawa discusses a shocking incident that inspired Plan 75
There was a incident in Japan in 2016. A man killed 19 disabled people in a care facility. The guy used to work in that care facility. He was very young: 26 or 27 years old. After he quit that job, he broke into that facility in the early in the morning, then stabbed 19 people to death and injured 40 others. In his criminal statement, he said he did it for good reason, because these people are a burden to society. The government has to spend money to support them. That’s what he said. That’s why he eliminated them.
That was a really, really shocking incident. But it’s not an incident caused by just one crazy person. It happened because of social factors and extreme rationalism. That incident, particularly, made me want to make this film. It also inspired the opening scene of Plan 75 is a massacre scene where a young guy kills elderly people.
The opening scene was a very important scene because what he said in the statement is in line with the concept behind Plan 75. Plan 75 looks nice and friendly. But the nature of the system is very cool and inhuman. I wanted this very brutal and violent massacre to share similarities with Plan 75 itself.
7R: When did you start working on Plan 75? Did the pandemic affect how you approached the script?
Chie Hayakawa: I started working on it in 2017. It took about four years to complete. While developing the script, COVID happened. I started thinking that I should present a kind of hope in this film. I didn’t want to make people uneasy as we were already depressed in real life.
Before COVID, I was planning to make this film more dark and more depressing. I didn’t put any hope in the last scene. I wanted to say to the audience, do you really want to live in such a dark world?
During COVID, similar things were happening in reality. For example, in some countries, they prioritized young patients’ lives over the elderly. They would provide life-prolonging care to younger patients only. I started feeling very scared that reality was exceeding fiction.
But I didn’t want a happy ending. It’s not that simple. I decided to put a very slight ray of hope in this film. I wanted to make Michi more determined to choose to live. Before that, it was more subtle. I also changed the young characters who work in the system: the young guy [Hiromu] and the young lady [Yoku] who works at the telephone centre. They realise, at one point, how inhumane the system is. They start doubting what they do.
7R: How did you develop the details of how the Plan 75 system works?
Chie Hayakawa: I wanted to make Plan 75 look nice and friendly on the surface, convenient, and very easy to use. Although. in fact, it’s a very inhumane and cruel system. There is no Plan 75 in reality. But we often confront such inhumane attitudes in society or politics. For example, they tend to rephrase inconvenient truths with nicer terms. I wanted to capture that reality as a kind of a caricature.
I didn’t really do research on that kind of system. But it was easy to imagine what the government would do and how they would present and promote such a system. There would be a lack of sensitivity to human dignity.
7R: How did you think about showing the financial aspects of Plan 75 and in the characters’ lives? We understand that young people work for Plan 75 because they need money, and that’s where the money is.
Chie Hayakawa: Pretty much everyone who works for the system is doing it for money. It’s easier for them to accept that system because they’re doing this for a job. It’s not about personal politics. They don’t hate the elderly.
But they don’t think about what’s going to happen to these elderly people once they step outside the office. Hiromu and Yoko stop thinking about what’s going to happen to [the elderly people they work with when they’re not with them]. That way, they can keep working. Once they get feel guilty, they won’t be able to continue working these jobs and won’t be able to make a living. So it’s not their fault.
But at the same time, I could say that it is their fault. They are unconsciously helping the system by taking part in the system. I can’t say they’re completely innocent, including the audience. We are watching it. If we are bystandersto what’s happening in society, it is the same as being a part of it. If we are apathetic or indifferent to the system, we are complicit in the system with our passiveness.
7R: Were there particular scenes where you wanted to address the bystander problem?
Chie Hayakawa: There’s a scene with Yoko, the telephone girl, when she is eating her lunch [at the front of the frame]. Behind her, we can see her boss in a meeting, explaining to the new staff members. how to deal with the elderly clients and keep them in Plan 75. At one point, Yoko looks at the camera. At that moment, I wanted the audience to feel that you are part of the society. You are part of the story. You are also the one who’s supporting the system.
In the scene where we first meet Michi in the hotel, working as a cleaner, she also looks into the camera directly. I wanted this to say that this is not only Michi’s story. It’s about your story, too. I wanted to draw attention to the audience that you are the bystander already toward the people who are already living in the reality of this kind of society.
7R: Were you inspired by other films, filmmakers, or artists for the film?
Chie Hayakawa: I was inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go: his worldview and artistic approach to the theme. The Russian film Loveless was inspiring for its very cold tone and critical view against the world.
I rewatched a lot of Michael Haneke’s movies before I started filming to get the sense and tone of his dry approach to drama. I didn’t want to make this film too sentimental.
7R: What did you do to try to avoid sentimentality and have that ‘dry’ approach to the drama?
Chie Hayakawa: I tried to make it so we’re observing, from a distance, what’s happening. I tried not to get too close to the actors. It’s easy to get too sentimental or too dramatic.
I tried not to make the characters cry in the film or show emotion. Most of them tried to keep the emotion inside. Nobody really says what they really feel. They try to hide it. The audience will feel it more when the characters don’t say what they feel, instead of showing the characters crying or being so depressed.
I asked the actors to try not to show emotion in the film, to not do facial expressions, and to keep the action as minimal as possible.
7R: Can you give an example of how your approached that with the actors?
Chie Hayakawa: When Hiromu, the young guy, finds his uncle is already dead in the bed [at the Plan 75 centre], the actor Isomura Hayato could have played it as more of an overreaction. In the first take, he was being more dramatic, like, “Oh, my God! Please, wake up! Wake up! I’m sorry!”. And he was crying.
But I told him to try not to do that. Hiromu would have already imagined what had happened. He would have been thinking about that situation, his uncle’s death, while he was driving back to the facility. He already knew that it was too late and wouldn’t be so surprised when he actually looks at that body. But he still must try to accept the reality. Then, the action is not so exaggerated. It looks more real.
We Japanese don’t show our emotions so directly. We have a tendency to try to hide our emotions and keep a poker face. I thought it was strange that only in film or TV drama do we show our reaction. But that is not real. I thought it would be more real to not show the characters’ emotion on the surface.
7R: Did you have the actors try different levels of emotion in each scene, and then ultimately decide to have them keep pulling back?
Chie Hayakawa: The actors got to know that I don’t like big actions so they would be more subtle. The actor who plays Hiromu’s uncle [Takao Taka] is a theatre actor. He usually does Shakespeare in a very dramatic way. He always said, “I am the actor who plays big emotions, but I’m going to shut that down for the film. I will try to refrain from it.” He did very well.
When I shot Yoko talking on the phone to Michi in their last conversation, I asked her to keep the emotion in, to try to be patient, not to cry. But in the very last take, I told the actress Yumi Kawai, you can cry. She cried so much when she was talking. When I was editing that scene, it was so touching to see her actually crying. But at the last minute, I ended up choosing the take where she’s not crying. I realised it’s easy to make her cry, and it would maybe make the audience cry, as well. But it’s another level when we see her try to be patient and to not to cry. It’s actually more emotional, in a way.
7R: How do you balance wanting to provoke a reaction from the audience with not being didactic?
Chie Hayakawa: I wanted to leave space for the audience to feel and think about what they feel about things. I didn’t want to dictate that you should feel this way or you should think this way. I wanted to leave that open to the audience. That way, it stimulates their imagination and sensitivity towards the story.
I always try to be not judgmental about what’s happening or what the characters do. I assume that some people — many people — will want this system. Actually, a lot of people in Japan said that they want this system in our society — not because they want to eliminate the elderly. But they are very concerned and anxious about being old. What if we don’t have money? What if we don’t have family or get sick? They would feel more secure if they were to have that option [of euthanasia] in case they’re suffering from something. They feel it’s better to have that option. That’s why there are so many people who said that they want this system.
I was expecting that a certain group of people would agree with Plan 75. But I didn’t want to blame these people who want this system. I tried to be very careful about depicting the system and the story.
Personally, I’m strongly against this kind of system. But I try not to push my opinion while telling the story.
7R: How did you approach designing the characters’ modest homes and the Plan 75 spaces where there’s clearly a lot of money being spent?
Chie Hayakawa: I planned to make all Plan 75-related facilities, such as the office in the city and the hospitals, look so modern, cold, and inhuman. By contrast, I wanted to make Michi’s place and Maria’s environment warm and humanistic. I discussed with the production designer [Setsuko Shiokawa] about this concept, and the colour and textures. For Michi and Maria, I tried to use warm colours, like red and orange. For Hiromu and Plan 75, I used cold, machine-like, gray tones.
It’s true that the government is putting more money into Plan 75 to make it more accessible to people. On the contrary, I wanted to show that it is difficult for people to reach social welfare.
7R: How did you think about Michi’s apartment? It feels like you can see a whole life there, but it’s also something that she could actually afford.
Chie Hayakawa: I wanted to get the sense that she has been living in that place for so many years. There’s history in that apartment. There’s so much stuff because she used to live with her husband. His belongings are still there.
I wanted to reveal her character and her backstory by showing her belongings and how she lives. Her apartment is very neatly arranged. There’s a plant in the window. She really enjoys her life.
In the beginning, she is content, happy, and full of life. But gradually, towards the end of the film, she looks so lonely in her apartment. It’s the same apartment, but the neighbours have all left the building. She’s the only one left in the building.
She always checks in her mailbox. In the beginning, she has some flyers and some letters. But the second time she checks the mailbox, there’s nothing in it. It tells us that she’s about to be abandoned by the world.
On the last day, she looks out from her balcony. The building is so old and large, but she’s the only one who’s left, alone. That picture was so sad and isolated, instead of the warm interior where she used to live.
7R: On the other hand, the apartment where Hiromu’s uncle lives is very sparse.
Chie Hayakawa: Compared to women, men tend to become more isolated. They don’t have friends. They are alone. I’m not sure if it’s only true of Japanese men, but it’s likely that they try to keep their distance from others. They hesitate to communicate with others.
Women tend to be more communicative. They try to find connections to other people and have friends. That was another contrast between Michi and the uncle. He is very evasive after he retires from the company. And since he doesn’t have family, there’s no way for him to be connected to the community. His apartment is so empty compared to Michi’s.
7R: How did you think about the lighting for the film?
Chie Hayakawa: Sunlight is a symbol of life and the beauty of life. I discussed with my DoP [Director of Photography Hideho Urata] that I wanted to use the sunlight in some scenes as a symbol that Michi loves her life. When she feels the warmth of sunlight, we see she wants to live.
As the story goes on, she’s going to a very dark place. But eventually, when she decides to live, she faces the sun. In the very last scene, being in the sunlight means she has decided to live. Now, she is full of life.
On the other hand, I tried to use artificial light, like fluorescent light, in the Plan 75 facilities and the offices in the city.
7R: How did you think about the sound design for the film Plan 75?
Chie Hayakawa: Sound design is one of the most important elements in filmmaking. I worked with this excellent sound designer [Philippe Grivel] in Paris. Because the film doesn’t have much dialogue, I wanted to create a soundscape that would stimulate the audience’s imagination and emotion.
We enhanced the sound of machinery, such as automobiles, air conditioning, trains passing, and railway crossings. This was to express the savageness and the brutality of the society and the system.
I remember putting a lot of sound effects of birds singing in some scenes. For example, when Michi leaves her apartment on the very last day, she’s looking out at the view from the window that she used to see everyday. But it’s the last day in her life. She wants to be able to see the scenery. She wants to be able to hear the birds singing. It’s a very sad moment, but the birdsong sounds so peaceful and beautiful.
In the scene at the small restaurant, where the uncle has his last meal, his last breakfast, the last public place that he will be in, the sound was very important. It’s the last meal he can have before he dies. He’s listening to the sound of that environment. There are cooking sounds from the kitchen and people talking in the background. There’s a car passing outside of the restaurant. It’s all the sounds of ordinary life.
7R: Can you tell me about how you approached working with Chieko Baisho?
Chie Hayakawa: I made a detailed biography of Michi for Chieko. Chieko asked me where Michi was born and what kind of family she grew up with. So I made a very detailed life story of Michi for her. She didn’t ask any other questions. It was so easy to work with her.
In the scenes where Chieko is the only actress, most of the time, I gave the OK to the first take. It was perfect almost all the time. Other elderly actresses had some trouble remembering the dialogue, but Chieko Baisho had that dialogue down perfectly.
I think she understands the character more deeply than I do. She improvised some gestures, which were excellent. For example, she improvised in the scene when she was cleaning up her locker when she got fired from the hotel. She wipes the locker, puts her hands together, and whispers, “Thank you.” It’s not in the script. She just did it herself. These actions reveal everything about what kind of woman she is and what kind of life she has been through. I was so overwhelmed when I looked at what she does very naturally.
7R: How do you give actors the opportunities to discover moments like this?
Chie Hayakawa: I try not to direct how to move. I tried to let them have that freedom. I didn’t tell them the limit of the frame. They can go anywhere they want. My DoP is the kind of person who doesn’t limit the actors’ movement. So instead of asking them to please be in the frame, they can go wherever. The acting is the most important element in the film. In the first take, I told them, please, do whatever you want: whatever feels right and natural.
Chieko Baisho is so skilled because she has had such a long career. Her maturity and professionalism is exceptional. It’s the most outstanding acting I’ve ever seen. I was lucky to have her as a protagonist.
Also, she’s a very charming person on set although she’s a legendary actress in Japan. She was so nice and kind and so friendly to everyone and always greeted the extras. She would say something like, “Hello everyone, I am Chieko Baisho. Thank you for coming. And thank you for being patient, waiting for so long in the cold weather. I appreciate you.” She knew all the names of all of the crew, even the assistants. She greets everyone every morning. I was so surprised. I admire her. Everyone on set fell in love with her.
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