Recently cinema has delivered several films where elderly characters express their support for euthanasia worldwide, from The Netherlands with Pink Moon, to India with It’s Time To Go and Japan with Plan 75. The latter, directed by Chie Hayakawa is set in a near-to-futuristic landscape in the Land of the Rising Sun.
In this context, a surplus of seniors — versus an abundance of babies — is causing trouble. Thus, a hypothetical new legislation offers its elderly citizens an incentive to euthanise, through its programme called ‘Plan 75.’
Director Chie Hayakawa shares what inspired the making of this chilling social drama in this exclusive interview:
Q: In the past few months cinema from different regions of the world has given a voice to the desire of seniors to terminate their life. What triggered you to tell this story?
C.H : In Japan in the summer of 2016, a man murdered 19 disabled people, purporting that severely disabled people have no worth staying alive, and that his deed was an act of mercy. In his testimonial letter describing his motive, he used the words “vitalisation of the world economy.” His logic was that the existence of disabled people hinder economic activity, and that economic value was more important than human lives.
I don’t believe that this way of thinking is confined to one deranged murderer. In our society where economic value is prized over everything else, I cannot help thinking that there are in fact many people who share similar emotions. Our capitalist society, which values rationality and productivity, creates the distinction between “worthy lives” and “worthless lives”, and critical views on socially weak people get stronger by the day. My anger and anxiety toward such intolerance of society motivated me to make this film.
Q : This feature film is an expansion of your eponymous short film, in what way do you feel the longer format allowed you to fully convey your thoughts on the themes you confront?
C.H : In feature length format, I could depict more characters from different backgrounds and dig deeper into a character’s emotion in order to reveal reality and detail the system of PLAN 75. In short film, I tended to focus on the impact of the story setting and chose a dark ending to fuel audience’s anxiety. However, while developing the script, I was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic. I started to think that I should present a kind of hope in this film because I didn’t want to make people uneasy as we’ve already been depressed in real life.
Q : How did you first approach the prominent actress and singer Chieko Baisho to act in your film and in what way did you prepare her for the role of Mishi Kakutani?
C.H : I asked a casting director who has worked with her in the past. After reading the script, she told him that she needed to meet the director in person before she made her decision. I had a meeting with her and explained the concept of the film and my motivation and what kind of person Michi is. We had this meeting not only for her to judge the project but also for me as a director to know her current appearance and physical condition. That’s what she said when we met. I thought that she was very professional and she was the person who knows what’s best for the film. I made a detailed biography of Michi and explained it to Chieko to help her to prepare the role.
Q : What research did you conduct to depict the hypothetical reality portrayed in Plan 75?
C.H : I did some research on Michi’s character by meeting with 10-15 elderly women, and on Maria’s by interviewing Filipino caregivers who work in Japan. But for Plan 75, I didn’t really do research. Instead, I observed the way that our government promotes new services and the style of their political campaigns. The film is a kind of a caricature of what our government may likely do. I often find that the government tries to rephrase inconvenient truth with nice and friendly terms and manipulate public perceptions with commercials and PR. The advertising campaign covers up the negative elements of the government and the real issues. But people get used to these types of propaganda campaigns and accept it which makes people stop critical thinking and become blind to the reality.
Q : Though it remains taboo in many cultures, several people have ended their lives by assisted suicide, with Jean-Luc Godard being the most prominent recent example. What are your thoughts on the right to death-in-dignity?
C.H : It’s not a film about pro or con euthanasia. There is a motif of assisted suicide, but it’s not a theme of this film. One’s attitude towards how we die is very personal thing, it’s not something I want to judge. By telling this story, I wanted to stimulate the audience’s imagination and compassion to other people’s pain and emotion. I have some understanding and empathy toward people who seek the right to death-in-dignity, but I have doubt about legislating it because there may be certain people who are not allowed to have an alternative choice to death due to social or psychological pressure.
Q : In the past the elderly were protected and valued for their wisdom and experience, today ageism portrays this generation as a burden to society, why do you think there’s been this cultural shift?
C.H : TV and the media are spreading fear about being old and creating a potential outlet for people’s anger and complaints about life in an insecure society. People tend to turn their wrath against the elderly not to the government.
Q : Your film shows a society that tries to get rid of the weak, is this why you chose to focus on elderly characters who are not necessarily suffering from severe pain and illness?
C.H : Yes. That was the point. If I tell a story about people who are suffering from illness, the audience will say, “it’s good for them to have that option.” It will be easily accepted and people will stop thinking further. I want people to imagine and feel compassion to those who have no other option or who take the choice against their will. Also I want them to imagine how distorted our society will be if we have such system like PLAN 75 which is willing to hold out a death option to those who are suffering instead of giving them a helping hand.
Q : Countries like Japan and Italy have high life expectancies and low fertility rate, how do you feel this trend influences the debate on euthanasia?
C.H : The fact does influence the debate on euthanasia. A super ageing society is a serious social issue for the government. Some people would look upon the issue as being related to euthanasia and talk about it as one of the solutions to a ageing society. But it’s not that simple to control one’s life and death. I have doubt and concern about letting the government have that option.
Q : Did you get inspiration from films of the past that tackled the legalisation of euthanasia, like the 1973 film Soylent Green that is set in 2022?
C.H : No, I didn’t. I came to know about Soylent Green after I made a short version of PLAN 75. It was surprising that film is set in 2022, the year PLAN 75 premiered. What a coincidence. Rather I was inspired by the worldview and artistic approach of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.
Q : The film premiered at the at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, it was the Closing Film for the New York City’s programme at Japan Society on The Female Gaze and was Japan’s selection for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards. How does it feel to be amongst the filmmakers who are contributing to the international comeback of Japanese cinema, alongside Ryusuke Hamaguchi and Hirokazu Kore-eda?
C.H : I am happy to be counted as a part of “the international comeback of Japanese cinema.” I travelled a lot last year to various film festivals and was overwhelmed by the fact that everybody knew and watched “Drive My Car,” “Shoplifter” and “Nobody Knows.” They talked to me enthusiastically about how much they love these films and admire these directors. I believe that their success did open up and broaden international audience’s interest in Japanese cinema. I really appreciate it and want to keep working hard to reach global audiences.