by Motoro Mase; adapted by Kristina Blachere
published by Viz; $12.99 US
The premise of Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is fascinating, both in terms of human nature — what would you do if you knew 24 hours before you were going to die? — and Japanese society in particular, as the country has created a law and bureaucracy to make that happen.
In order to inspire people to find life precious, the government passed a law that during an early childhood vaccination, one in every one thousand of the children will be implanted with a capsule. Sometime between the age of 18-24, on a predetermined schedule, that capsule will break and kill them. Since no one knows if they’ll be one of the ones to die early, people are supposed to be inspired to live well and obediently.
Now, this doesn’t really make sense. It’s supposed to be the case that people behave properly because they don’t know if their life will be cut short, but I would think that people would instead act out, increasing crime instead of decreasing it. Some of the stories deal with those who decide to commit murder — since what does it matter? they’ve already been given a death penalty — but it’s treated as an aberration, and the survivors are punished for it through shame and financial penalty. Most of the recipients instead achieve a quiet, honorable sacrifice. (Maybe this series is based more around cultural differences than I thought.)
Those who protest the killing of innocent people, even for the greater good of society, are labeled social miscreants and themselves injected. The ikigami of the title is the “death notice” the victims receive 24 hours in advance, and Fujimoto (the series’ continuing character) is one of the messengers selected to deliver them. As the stories play out, he slowly comes to question his position.
This is a potent idea for science fiction, exploring “what if” a society behaved this way, but in practice, it’s a vehicle to tell short stories about people making decisions about how they’d spend the last day of their lives. Each book covers two cases in three chapters each. Every month, Fujimoto gets two or three messages to deliver, one of which is always due out that day. The first chapter ends with the victim finding out they’ve been selected, and the remaining two complicate the situation and show us how they choose to go. While the author has worked out some of the details of the system, the bigger picture — how a law like this would get implemented, for example — is outside the scope of the series so far.
In the first book, the first story shows how the ikigami can backfire. It’s about a convenience store clerk who was horribly bullied as a teen — burned with cigarettes, stripped, and humiliated. When he gets his notice, he snaps, convinced that life is unjust, since those who deserve punishment will outlive him. His hate drives him to revenge, knifing and raping some of his former attackers, but since he still dies in the end, he finds it small comfort.
The second story follows an aspiring musician. He ditches the partner he sings with on the streets when he’s “discovered”, but when he doesn’t hit quickly with the public, he’s turned into a backup singer for someone hotter. He chose a chance at fame over friendship, a decision he regrets when told of his impending death and one he tries to make amends for.
The art is realistic, not particularly stylized, but moody, suited to the tone of the stories, which aim to be straightforward and thought-provoking. It’s gritty, with shadowing that makes for powerful expressions. As Fujimoto continues with his job, he finds himself becoming more numb, inured to the pain he brings.
Book two contains the story of a wannabe director who’s abusing both drugs and his live-in girlfriend in his struggle to reach his dreams. The second piece is about a clumsy orderly at a nursing home who inspires a woman missing her departed husband. This story makes explicit the comparison between accepting one’s ikigami and serving the country in other ways, such as military service. We also meet Dr. Kubo, a therapist who works with those who need help accepting their fate; she becomes a continuing character.
Book three starts with a bitchy aspiring politician who neglects her son and henpecks her husband while preaching the virtue of the ikigami program. When her son is selected for death, she wants to use him as a way to get votes, since she’s found him useless until then. Things take a violent turn, resulting in the most unpleasant of the series’ stories so far, since none of the characters are particularly likable or sympathetic.
The followup is one of the most syrupy, in contrast. A ne’er-do-well who only cares about his blind sister uses his con artist skills to improve her life as his final act.
The series is thought-provoking, but ultimately, I found it unsatisfying, since I wasn’t able to accept the premise enough to focus on the character stories. Those who liked Death Note might also enjoy this alternate take on predicting one’s demise. (The publisher provided review copies.)