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Plan 75 (Film Still)

Plan 75, a dystopian Japanese sci-fi about the future of ageing

The film, which is Japan’s submission for this year’s Oscars, sees writer-director Chie Hayakawa concoct a chilling vision of the future. ‘It’s dystopian but it’s very realistic,’ she tells Nick Chen

Life is hard enough but what if you’re the elderly, unsupported protagonist of a dystopian sci-fi? In Plan 75, Japan’s submission for the most recent Oscars, writer-director Chie Hayakawa concocts a chilling reality: in a near-future Japan, the government passes a law that offers voluntary euthanasia to anyone over the age of 75 in exchange for a small cash reward. Some accept the proposal to pass down money to relatives; others are simply deprived of human contact or fear becoming a burden.

“I didn’t really mean to make a sci-fi,” says Hayakawa, 46, over Zoom from her home in Tokyo. “It’s dystopian but it’s very realistic.” Along with an absence of flying cars or special effects, the film unfolds at such a relaxed pace it maintains a disturbingly real, documentary-esque tone. Often, scenes will simply follow 78-year-old Mishi (Chieko Baisho) during her isolated day-to-day struggles; at night, she directs traffic on her own in an orange jacket, unable to secure more appropriate employment for someone her age.

“We didn’t have enough budget to create a future Japan, so I decided to make it look not so different from current Japan,” the director explains. “In reality, we don’t have Plan 75 – yet. But other things depicted in the film already exist, like the insensitiveness to socially weak people.”

The key word is “yet”. While Plan 75 may possess a logline to turn heads in an elevator pitch, it’s not so farfetched to imagine its eventual existence in any ageist, capitalistic country with declining birth rates. Moreover, in a real-life tragedy in 2016, 19 disabled people were murdered at a Japanese care facility by a man claiming his victims weren’t contributing to civilisation.

“Japanese society was getting more and more intolerant to elderly, disabled, and poor people,” says Hayakawa. “Politicians started talking about the value of life based on productivity. I was so concerned about the situation – and then the 2016 incident happened. The killer started thinking disabled people are useless, but that atmosphere already existed in our society.”

Plan 75 originated as one of five shorts comprising 2018’s Ten Years Later, an anthology film exec-produced by Hirokazu Kore-eda. “When people watched the 20-minute version, they all said it reminded them of Black Mirror,” says Hayakawa with a laugh. “But with the feature version, I wanted to focus more on human sensitivity and emotion, and not make anything too dystopian.”

Hayakawa’s influences are thus more European arthouse than genre fare. In particular, she names Michael Haneke’s Amour, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, the Dardenne brothers, and, for his “cold and objective tone”, Krzysztof Kieślowski. With a recurring motif of sunlight for the timelessness of nature and Michy obtaining flickers of hope in unexpected places (well, whenever there’s a window during daytime), Plan 75 is arguably more Three Colours Trilogy than Black Mirror. “Michy feels the beauty of life in the sunlight. But she has to give it up by taking the choice of death.

Part of Michy’s motivation to join Plan 75 is a refusal to accept welfare. On the verge of losing a place to live and enough money to support herself, the 78-year-old woman then only finds human companionship in a weekly 15-minute call with Maria (Stefanie Arianne), a Plan 75 employee who’s under strict instructions to obey a script – any warmth might accidentally convince the elderly to live a little longer.

Elsewhere, the screenplay frighteningly fleshes out all the various “what if?” intricacies of the concept. So much so, future politicians could take the wrong lessons from the film. Junior staff refer to cartoon picture diagrams to learn how bodies are efficiently disposed. The death procedure, from the moment a receptionist greets you at the door, is as smooth and casual as visiting a dentist for a check-up. Advertisements promoting Plan 75 all do so with smiling, ageing participants. “The message from Plan 75 is that you can die whenever you want,” the director says. “That message sounds kind and friendly, but, in fact, it says: ‘We don’t need you.’”

‘When people watched the 20-minute version, they all said it reminded them of Black Mirror... But with the feature version, I wanted to focus more on human sensitivity and emotion’ – Chie Hayakawa

However, Hayakawa doesn’t wish for Plan 75 to be for or against assisted suicide, not does she wish to judge Michy’s desire to continue employment at 78: “Some people want to keep working to feel happy, some people have no choice because they don’t get enough pension. I can’t include everyone.”

Instead, the film pinpoints the absence of support for the elderly, not just financially but in combating loneliness. Making friends as an adult is tough enough, but what about when you’re 78? “It’s already difficult for Michy to not have money, a place to live, or a job. But once she loses her connection to people, she’s totally alienated and has lost her reason to live.”

For her next feature, Hayakawa plans to write and direct a more personal, 180-degree turn from Plan 75: a coming-of-age story based on her childhood and grief. For the time being, though, she’s still tracking the worldwide response to Plan 75, a film she initially considered extremely specific to Japanese culture.

“When I made the short version of Plan 75 in 2018, people said the system could never happen in Japan,” she remarks. “But after going through COVID, a lot of people say it could happen in the next five or 10 years. I think it could happen in Japan or anywhere else in the world.”

Plan 75 is out in UK cinemas and exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from May 12