The title of the Japanese dystopian drama “Plan 75,” which premiered on May 20 at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, may sound innocuous enough. But the simple title actually refers to a sinister solution to the country’s aging population issue. Because the elderly generation vastly outnumbers the younger generation, a free government program in Hayawaka’s dystopian Japan encourages citizens 75 and older to die voluntarily through assisted suicide. The narrative follows the stories of three people following the rollout of this program: a solitary elderly woman named Michi (Chieko Baisho), a young man named Hinomu (Hayato Isomura) who works as a salesman for Plan 75, and a young Filipino woman named Maria (Stefanie Arianna Akashi) with an ill daughter who also begins working for Plan 75 to make money. With its unsettling premise, “Plan 75” paints a somber picture of old age, with a few pinpoints of hope interspersed throughout a slowly paced but artfully shot film.
Michi is first shown working in housekeeping at a hotel; because she has no living family, she is forced to keep working to sustain herself despite her old age. After she loses her job at the hotel, she is constantly turned down by other companies because of her age. When she turns to welfare for assistance, she encounters bureaucratic roadblocks. Her story is an extremely bleak but unfortunately realistic portrayal of the lack of social support offered to elderly people in many societies. And yet, although it’s deeply saddening to watch this play out, Baisho is endearingly sympathetic as a lonely and good-natured woman who eventually feels cornered into choosing Plan 75 as the only way out of her predicament.
Some of the most evocative scenes of the film are between Mishi and the assigned Plan 75 agent who guides her through the process and comes to bond with Mishi after the older woman asks if they can spend time together outside of the context of work (which is not allowed by Plan 75). They go bowling together at a place where Mishi used to frequent with her late husband. The agent, a young woman who takes a genuine liking to Michi, helps her bowl. When Michi lands a strike, it’s an unexpectedly poignant moment of joy in an otherwise darkly tinged narrative.
The incisive script excels at highlighting the callousness of the government while still showing how the individuals selling Plan 75 are conflicted about the work that they do. The program is designed to entice elderly people with promises of a $1,000 grant to spend on whatever they’d like before they die, or a “group” option to be buried with loved ones. They can even pay extra to go to an all inclusive luxury resort as a last hurrah before death. The salespeople are meant to pitch all of this with fervor, but as the film progresses it effectively shows the psychic toll the sinister program takes on the young employees. Himono, for example, vigorously pitches the program to clients until his own estranged uncle signs up. He’s suddenly facing a moral dilemma as he gets to know his uncle better and also learns more about the dubious behind-the-scenes reality of the program. Meanwhile, Maria is in charge of taking care of the belongings of those who have chosen to die through Plan 75, sorting through countless items in a room filled with vestiges of life from shoes to watches. Watching her do her job, viewers witness an unnerving material reflection of the loss of human life.
The film’s creative cinematography is noteworthy with its subtly powerful framings of characters. Shots are captured with careful restraint and are able to render the characters’ moments of banality into aesthetically interesting scenes. Close ups are relatively rare and characters are often focused on from a distance, sometimes giving viewers the sense that they’re intruding on private moments. For example, as Hinomu spends more time with his uncle, one distant shot shows them standing side by side doing dishes together. With their backs facing the camera, the difference in age between the two men becomes less clear and they become strikingly similar.
Through thoughtfully centered stories, “Plan 75” is ultimately an indictment of ageism. Although it’s a grim portrait of how older generations are often cast aside, Hayakawa’s film is at its core a celebration of life — life in all of its mundanity, loneliness, grief, and, of course, its beauty. Mishi spends much of her time alone throughout the film, taking care of her plants or cleaning her apartment. While she’s still searching for interpersonal connections, her solitude does not make her life any less meaningful. “Plan 75” upholds the inherent value of human life with its introspective writing and performances.
—Arts Chair Jaden S. Thompson can be reached at [email protected]