Some would say that beautiful lives bloom only in the shadow cast by death. But while this may very well be true, how could we ever know for sure? Statements like this one and Plato’s ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ are supposed to be useful and practical advice that help us to determine how we ought to live our lives but if we are going to change our lives and live them either with our heads buried in books or our faces pressed up against the nearest tombstone then surely these sorts of statements need to be tested? Motoro Mase’s manga serial Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is set in an alternate Japan where the state regularly sacrifices one citizen out of every thousand as a reminder to the others that their lives could end at any time. The Japanese state does this because it believes that by reminding its citizens of their mortality, their citizens will choose to live more productive lives. Ikigami is an exploration of what it might be like to live in such a society.
So how does this society work?
The sacrificial process is surprisingly straightforward and enacted by a largely faceless bureaucracy. The deaths are comparatively painless, the rewards for participation are generous and the victims are lauded as national heroes with victimhood being a source of pride for any family deprived of a young member:
“For people to understand how precious life is, they must confront death. That’s the logic behind our country’s National Welfare Act. All citizens undergo National Welfare Immunization upon entering elementary school. One in a thousand syringes contain a nanocapsule that causes the recipient to die between the ages of 18 and 24. The date of death is predetermined. But the notices informing these young people of their fate are delivered only 24 hours ahead.” – Volume 4, Page 5.
Those citizens chosen for sacrifice are heralded as national heroes and their final 24 hours grant them access to all manner of goods and services free of charge. As long as they do not use their final day to commit a crime, their sacrifice brings with it a generous pension that is paid to their surviving family members. We are told, in the first volume of the series, that the National Welfare Act has saved Japan by helping it to recover from an unnamed war. Thanks to the National Welfare Act, the people of Japan boast unrivalled productivity and wealth; their suicide rates are among the lowest in the world and their economy is enjoying the longest economic boom in history. According to the numbers, the results of the experiment are unmistakable: by sacrificing one citizen out of every thousand, the Japanese government has immeasurably improved the lives of its fellow citizens and made their country a better place.
But can you really trust the statistics?
Originally published in Shogakugan publishing’s Weekly Young Sunday magazine, Ikigami was later collected into eight volumes that are currently being translated by the excellent Viz Media (volume 7 is due out Summer 2011). Because of its original publication venue, Ikigami takes the form of a series of largely self-contained short stories in which a messenger named Fujimoto delivers a death notice — known as an ‘ikigami’– to a different person. With each story we learn a bit more about Japanese society as we see how different individuals and their families react to the ikigami process. On one level, these short stories function as examinations of human attitudes towards imminent death as most of the stories revolve around an individual being forced into action by the realisation that they will soon be dead. Written with a psychological complexity and depth of humanity that is regrettably rare in comics, these short stories also serve to highlight the various problems inherent in the system.
The series uses the messenger Fujimoto to give voice to its growing doubts as to the efficacy of the sacrificial system. Fujimoto’s continued presence on the margins of the various short stories not only allows Mase to offer editorial commentary on the content of the stories but also to give us a peek behind the bureaucratic curtain and gain some insight into the different ways in which the system sustains itself.
Despite being a functioning democracy, Ikigami’s Japan has a political culture in which the National Welfare Act is not up for negotiation or even discussion. Just as victims of the Act are heralded as national heroes, those who fail to abide by the act (such as people who commit crimes during their last day) are denounced as seditious traitors intent upon destroying the country. As sinister as this may sound, the reality is far worse as the families of so-called traitors are also labelled traitors and are routinely shunned by society, dismissed from their jobs and denied access to basic government welfare. The social stigma surrounding failure to comply with the Act is held in place by the existence of a shadowy government agency known as the National Welfare Police who routinely ‘disappear’ and brainwash citizens who publically question the Act. Indeed, one of Ikigami’s more affecting plotlines involves Fujimoto’s relationship with a councillor who confides in him that she has doubts about the Act. Attracted to the woman and yet terrified of being labelled a traitor, Fujimoto agonises over whether to share his doubts with the councillor and join her in opposing the Act or whether to report her to the National Welfare Police and live with the guilt of having her ‘disappear’. Brilliantly, Mase keeps the truth about the councillor a secret, forcing both Fujimoto and reader alike to live with the ambiguity of his decision.
Fujimoto’s doubts about the ikigami process grow as a result of his realisation that there is a gap between how the process is supposed to work and how the process does in fact function. For example, while the sacrificial victims are supposed to be heralded as national heroes, the truth is that fewer and fewer businesses are providing victims with the free goods and services they are promised. Similarly, while the messengers are supposed to provide victims and their families with a human face, the increasing number of deliveries that messengers are expected to make as well as the growing fragmentation of Japanese society and an increasing reliance upon technological means of communication mean that messengers seldom have the time to provide victims with the moment of genuine human contact that lessens the blow of learning of their imminent death. Indeed, it is one thing to be informed that you will be sacrificed for the good of the nation and quite another to learn of this by text message or a note left on your door ‘while you were out’.
By taking each new crack in the system’s oppressive façade and grounding it in a moment of supreme human grief and loss, Mase allows the tension to build as he slowly stokes the fires of moral outrage: If we can see that this society is profoundly broken, why can’t the characters? How many innocents will have to lose their lives before people wake up and realise that the National Welfare Act is killing people for no good reason? Mase’s case for revolution is brilliantly constructed using both a push and a pull.
On the one hand, we are pushed into a desire for revolution by a growing sense of moral outrage at the failures of the system, the inhumanity of the sacrificial process and the oppressive tactics used to keep the system in place.
On the other hand, Mase pulls us into a revolutionary frame of mind by carefully revealing the existence not only of a growing sense of disillusionment with the National Welfare Act but also the existence of a number of countercultural organisations and online resources that suggest that it is not just Fujimoto and the readers that see the problems in Ikigami’s Japan.
The push-me-pull-you structure of Mase’s political argument also serves to mirror the conceit at the heart of the ikigami process: How does knowledge of a society’s looming demise affect the members of that society? The National Welfare Act is presented as a rotted-out political shack that faces growing opposition both within the bureaucracy and in society as a whole and by making this fact more and more obvious to both readers and members of his fictional society, Mase seems to be suggesting that knowing that their society is about to die might well make people more likely to do something either to overhaul the Act and return it to the centre of public life or dismantle the Act and allow the Japanese people to deal with death on their own terms. But surely this is the very conceit that the National Welfare Act is built upon?
Death has the power not just to end lives, but also to change them. It can change them for the better by prompting people to make changes, and it can change things for the worse by fostering a crippling sense of futility and loss. Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is an exploration of the tension between these two reactions to the revelation that we too shall someday be no more. With two volumes in the series yet to be published, I cannot really speak with any confidence as to Mase’s conclusions about whether or not life is better lived with a full knowledge of death but the series has presented us with two clear lessons.
The first is that everyone reacts to death in a different manner. As individuals we all live our lives with very different attitudes to the world and so, when we learn that our world is about to end, we react in ways that are completely unpredictable. Some of us will seek to change the world while others will flee it. Some of us will seek to destroy that which we have feared and others will embrace the difference and die happy in the knowledge that we go to our graves unmolested by regret, resentment or rage. By showing us so many different reactions to death, Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit celebrates the rich complexity and absolute uniqueness of our inner lives. The uniqueness of our reactions to death bring us to the series second lesson, namely that any attempt to force people into reacting a certain way to death is doomed not only to failure but also to the creation of misery. Yes, some lives are best lived in the shadow of death but others are not and any attempt to legislate for one possibility or another can only end in the sort of brutal repression and bureaucratised inhumanity that Ikigami explores with consummate style and grace.