With its famously high life expectancies and low fertility rate, the Japanese population has aged significantly in recent decades. In Japan, this phenomenon has caused tensions due to a concerns surrounding a reduced workforce. This issue forms the basis of Chie Hayakawa’s debut feature Plan 75, which envisions a government initiative where individuals can choose an assisted death to remove them as a burden on society. Following its selection as the official Japanese entry for the Oscars, Awards Radar chatted with Hayakawa, who explained her motivations behind making the film and the unique Japanese culture underlying its dystopian concept.
Shane Slater: I was so intrigued by the premise of the film. On the one hand, it’s a fictional dystopia, but it’s also speaking to a very contemporary issue, which is Japan’s aging population. What motivated you to tell this story?
Chie Hayakawa: My first motivation to make this film was anger. Anger towards the Japanese society, which is becoming more and more intolerant to the socially vulnerable people. Most of all, a real event happened in Japan in 2016. One guy killed like 19 disabled people in a care facility. Then the he said in his manifesto, that the disabled people are worthless to live because they are not productive. They’re a burden for the society, and the government has to spend a lot money for them.
So that’s what he said. But I thought, such a way of thinking already existed in society. So I really feel fear towards a society that tries to get rid of people who they consider useless. They try to talk about the value of people’s life based on the productivity. So that’s the starting point. After that incident, I decided to write a script.
SS: One of the striking things about the opening, is our introduction to the main character. We see her at work and not as a drain on society. Can you tell me more about this deliberate choice to focus on older people who are not necessarily suffering from severe pain and illness?
CH: I didn’t want to victimize the protagonist. I wanted to make the protagonist have dignity and be strong. She loves to live, she knows the beauty of life. That way the audience feels more compassion or empathy to her and naturally feel that they don’t want to let her die. If I give the protagonist a reason to die, such as if she’s suffering from disease or financial problems, then people will understand or maybe feel that this is a good option for her. But what I wanted to depict is, if such a system exists in society, it looks like the government is giving us the choice. But we cannot actually choose because of the atmosphere and social pressure. That’s what I wanted to depict and express in this film.
SS: Chieko Baisho gives such a beautiful performance. What was that collaboration like, especially with the fact that this character could be so relatable for her?
CB: She is a legendary actress and singer in Japan. And after I wrote the script, I immediately saw that she’s the one who can play this protagonist’s role. She has a dignity and a beauty is coming out from herself naturally. And it’s kind of rare that such a big actress plays for a first time director like me. But when I sent her the script she really liked the story. She thought the concept of Plan 75 was so terrible and scary. But because of the choice she takes in the last scene, she decided to take this role. It was great to work with her. She’s such an amazing actress. Most of the scenes that she would play by herself, I only shot like, one take.
SS: Going back to the violent opening scene and hearing about the hate crimes on the radio, it got me thinking that the tone of the film could have been very different. Were you always clear about how you were going to approach this Plan 75 concept?
CB: The opening scene looks very cruel and scary. But after that, I depicted it very realistic and calm, and sometimes kind of beautiful. I tried to depict the system so that Plan 75 looks very friendly and easy to use. Very convenient and nice to people. But the underlying concept of Plan 75 is similar to what happened in the opening. It’s very close and and violent. They’re killing the elderly. It’s the same thing. So I wanted the audience to feel that sense of cruelty by putting that opening scene in the beginning.
SS: When I was watching the film, I was reminded of Tokyo Story, which is about 70 years old now. Has Japanese society become more intolerant and caring towards the elderly? Was there any influence of that film on this one?
CB: Not really. You’re the first person to talk about Tokyo Story. But now I feel there’s a little common element with Tokyo Story because the parents don’t want to be a burden to their children. So that feeling will never change. Especially for Japanese elderly and Japanese people, they tend to think that they don’t want to be a burden to others. They don’t want to be a burden to children or society. So in that sense, it’s reasonable that a system like Plan 75 could be accepted by people in society.
SS: The film most have hit close to home for Japanese audiences. How did they respond to the film?
CB: Some people say it’s scarier than horror movie, because it could really likely happen. Even though there is no Plan 75 existing at this moment, other things depicted in this film exist already. So Japanese audiences feel that this very real. But actually a lot of people say they want Plan 75, because they want this option for security, emotional security. Because they have a huge fear of aging. Actually, a lot of people say they want it. But some people said, before they watched film, they wanted that kind of system but after watching the film, they changed their mind.
SS: Did non-Japanese audiences respond differently?
CB: Actually, I was surprised by the similar response to the film. I went to Singapore, France, Spain, and the US. I got a similar response from the audience in each place. But the foreign audience said, it looks weird for them to look at the Japanese people depicted in this film accepting the system without protesting at all. If the system had been in their country, a huge protest movement would occur. But in my film, people just accept it as is. That’s one of my points that I wanted to depict in this film, because the Japanese have a character of obeying the rule and what the government decides. I think that is kind of Japanese nature.
SS: Congratulations on being selected to represent Japan for the Oscar. What has that been like, especially following the historic success of Drive My Car?
CB: We all have a fresh memory of Drive My Car’s success. Back then we could not imagine that a Japanese film can win the Oscar. There’s couple films that won the Oscar in the past, but Drive My Car was a huge surprise. So I feel a lot of expectation from Japan. When I go to foreign festivals people know about this entry. I’m very honored.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]