Plan 75 is a Japanese language film which surrounds a (apparently) dystopian future setting in which the Japanese government has enacted a bill encouraging people to access assisted dying once they reach 75 years old. With the pressure of an aging population and the economic costs associated with it, the Japanese state offers free assisted dying to citizens against an undertone of moral obligation. The film interweaves the stories of three main characters: a government official who promotes the program and helps clients navigate the bureaucracy, a migrant worker from the Philippines performing end-of-life duties, and a still-employed 78-year-old woman facing economic and social hardships who opts in to the programme. Without giving too much away, I look at the film from a sociological perspective and examine some of the ideological undertones which are present rather than focus much on the for and against arguments surrounding euthanasia and assisted dying. I also consider some (as yet) imaginaries linking the themes to other possibilities.
If you haven’t seen it yet, here is the trailer:
Ageing Population and Low Birth Rate
Japan is experiencing what is often referred to as a demographic timebomb. It has a rapidly aging population alongside a low birth-rate and a low-immigration rate (Ghaznavi et al., 2022). This translates into a situation where Japan is in decline across many indicators including falling economic growth, falling tax revenues, falling GDP, falling working age population, increasing welfare bills, and increasing pension costs. Include in this the ‘burden’ of care versus Japan’s quite extreme work expectations then you have a social recipe for disaster. As such, the Japanese government continuously wrestles with the problem of what to do about it. This is where Plan-75 really begins to draw its projected scenario from. However, it is also rooted firmly in Japanese history.
There are certain undertones of the reproduction of the ancient Japanese practice of ubasute which occurred during the Heian era, around the 8th to 12th Century Japan. As Hayashi (2016: 125-126) notes, ubasute was the practice of ‘granny dumping’ whereby elders were literally taken out their homes to be dumped in remote areas such as forests. This included as a result of economic decision.
Aokigahara forest at the base of mount Fuji is synonymous with suicide and death and many may be familiar with the recent controversy stirred up by YouTuber Logan Paul who discovered and mocked a suicide victim he discovered and filmed in the forest. However, Aokigahara forest, prior to being the world’s second most popular suicide destination, was also an area in which ubasute occurred (O’Keefe, 2013: 187-188).
Despite these historical tones, similar sentiment towards Japanese elders still persists to this day as considered by Xiang et al. (2020). Although this does not manifest as ‘granny dumping’, Plan-75 clearly utilises existing sentiment within Japanese society to demonstrate the very possible potential for such a modern incarnation of ubasute to occur.
Beyond ubasute, there is also meiwaku, the strong inclination in Japanese society towards not being a burden or nuisance to others. Danely (2019) examines tensions between older Japanese peoples’ anxieties about living ‘too long’ and their efforts to achieve a successful long life. Arguing that older people have come to bear a moral responsibility for ageing under neoliberal discourse, Danely interprets an underlying sentiment where “life remaining is felt as a kind of moral failing that does nothing but burden others and weaken society”.
It is almost as if you can sense a coercive force which conveys the old capitalist desire: born, work, pay bills, die. That’s it! That’s your worth!
One of the themes recurring in the film is that of bureaucracy. The characters who work within state sanctioned disposal are friendly, charming, and happily plod along ‘just doing their job’ as too do people in real life. However, it is in the ‘just doing my job’ where dissociation from death-dealing occurs. Although the characters in the film come to have an awakening to the realisation of what is they actually do, the same cannot generally be said in actuality. Everyday, people go about their jobs oblivious to the actual role that their cog plays in the machine of bureaucracy and Plan 75 reflects this through a three-steps-of-separation rule between state agent and anybody they know personally.
The bureaucracy involved brings to mind the linear dealing of death so favoured by Adolf Eichmann during the holocaust, the ‘banality of evil’ as so termed by Hannah Arendt. Except, rather than the overt imposition of death that we come to associate with the holocaust, the modern dehumanised bureaucratic system comes with a smiling coercion masking its economically driven, geronticidal desires. The gentle nudges of the machinations of bureaucracy and state sanitised violence pull on the moral strings to do the right thing and kill yourself – for the greater good of course, and we will give you a grant to encourage you. When you boil it down to its fundamental essence, it is the trading of lives for money, nothing else; a eugenics economy.
Although the film presents an opting out as being offered, in actuality it is utterly conceivable that to action your right to opt-out, you must do so online. There would be no directions to where the opting out page lies and, if found, you will be forced to interact with a not-fit-for-purpose chatbot which intentionally obfuscates the answer you are looking for, itself an encouragement to just give up on life; everything is just too complicated and difficult and you now feel like such a failure.
It brings to the forefront an argument against euthanasia and assisted dying which I have long considered the eclipsing reason why we should not allow for it, although as a disclaimer, I do agree with euthanasia and assisted dying in principle. The economic logic of neoliberalism, itself an oppositional ideology to existing Japanese values, reorganises all thought into that economic logic. Therefore, it will always make economic sense that if a life is non-profitable, if you as human being cannot be exploited for profit, it makes sense for that life to be ‘repossessed’ and terminated. I always viewed it through the conceivable but as yet unrealised possibility of applying for welfare through the Department for Work and Pensions, an imaginary in which an individual signs-on to a diagnosis of terminal unemployment, six months to find a job before being ‘signposted’ to a ‘pathway provider’. No doubt it would make a nice market opportunity for some.
Even better, if you can gaslight the individual into taking personal responsibility for doing it themselves, personal responsibility being a core tenet of the neoliberal, then those who manufacture the eugenics process can be deemed unaccountable. They simply offered the freedom of choice (through private providers, naturally). Where one does not have the monetary means to opt for the private package, state assigned funds will be allocated to help you break the cost barrier that keeps you alive. Behind this ‘state help’, the trading of lives for money, lies only a cost cutting exercise. Cut the costs of care, cut the costs of welfare, cut the tax expenditure, cut the services needed; austeritas mortis.
Poor Versus Rich
Of course, the wealthier get to choose their package with luxury experiences making them feel satisfied not only with their end-of-life experience, but also in the knowledge that their wealth allowed for a satisfying experience of their short time in life. The rich would likely be exempt through a web of corporate and bureaucratic non-statements and excuses such as being the source of most tax money whilst paying none, or perhaps that 75 years old is only a recommended age at which to dispose of one’s self, or even that they are legally resident in another off-shore territory where the rule does not apply despite owning and living in a property as a permanent temporary non-resident resident where the rules actually do apply to everyone but them.
The poor then, are left dissatisfied, locked out of wider experience and meaning of the world; a lowly, barriered temporality of life and a feeling of pointlessness and despair at the end. For the poor, it would not take much to convince them to consent to wider eligibility for Plan-75 especially with the temptation of a little grant with which they can splurge at the end of days, perhaps on an upgraded, quicker acting ‘assistance’ serum.
The Guardian quote the director of Plan 75 who states that such a vision “is far from impossible in a country that is growing ever more intolerant to socially weak people: the elderly, the disabled and the people who have no money”. This betrays the extent to which the neoliberal order has poisoned minds with its economic logic, particularly through its tenet of competition which is well known as being reducible to the notion of ‘survival of the fittest’. Rather than survival of the fittest, it has become survival of the wealthiest, a logical error inherent to neoliberalism where the competition to survive leads to the complete purposelessness of money once it has become concentrated enough into the hands of a few.
If you think this is something which may be far-fetched, give consideration to the Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) programme in Canada. Launched in 2016, it gives state-funded assisted dying to people aged over 18, who have an irremediable condition that causes them suffering, and if their natural death is in the foreseeable future (Wiebe et al., 2018). Since its inception, the qualifying criteria has already expanded at least twice with a third expansion currently under review and set to offer the programme to individuals who solely have a mental health condition. Further, it has already reached the point where Canadian citizens are being euthanised at a rate of 10,000 a year.
There are already signs that the programme is being used to nudge people into terminating their own lives. Christine Gauthier, a former Paralympian and veteran, was offered assisted dying because she was becoming frustrated at the length of time it was taking to get a stairlift installed at her home. There were also others alongside her who gave evidence to Canadian parliament. The presence of coercion within any euthanasia or assisted dying offering is almost guaranteed as argued by the British Medical Association but under the influence of neoliberal policies it is all but predetermined. Under the absolute requirement to establish markets and profits within a system of survival of the fittest, if there is no method for profit extraction for older people, then profit extraction will occur through offering services of termination for those deemed unfit.
In a recent poll conducted by ResearchCo in Canada, there were some disturbing results. Although the poll was limited to 1,000 people, they found that 51% supported the right to assisted dying on the basis of being unable to access medical treatment. This facilitates a situation whereby making access to healthcare difficult, such as through privatisation, allows state and corporate interests to encourage people to die. In further disturbing results, 50% thought disability was an acceptable reason perhaps reflecting the lesser value that if often placed on the lives of the disabled. 28% also believed that being homeless was a good reason, and 27% thought poverty was an acceptable reason to access assisted dying. To put it bluntly, a significant minority think that if you simply do not have enough money, then the option to die should be on the table.
It seems an unusual move to place this film in the category of science fiction given the proximity to reality. Regardless, it absolutely presents us with a reflection of the stage we are at in not only neoliberalism, but capitalism as a whole. The failure of the system to provide for everybody, and to control those who vacuum up all that should be available to others, is translating into an exigency which both requires and encourages us to begin disposing of people who are ‘spent’ or who cannot assimilate. Plan 75 simply animates this proximity and, as such, should be viewed as a logical end to which current economic thinking is moving towards.
Canseco, M. (2023). Most Canadians Back Status Quo on Medical Assistance in Dying. [online] Research Co. Available at: https://researchco.ca/2023/05/05/maid-canada-2023/ [Accessed 8 Jun. 2023].
Danely, J. (2018). ‘I Don’t Want to Live Too Long!’: Successful Aging and the Failure of Longevity in Japan. Interrogating the Neoliberal Lifecycle: The Limits of Success, 189.
Ghaznavi, C., Kawashima, T., Tanoue, Y., Yoneoka, D., Makiyama, K., Sakamoto, H., Ueda, P., Eguchi, A. and Nomura, S., (2022). Changes in marriage, divorce and births during the COVID-19 pandemic in Japan. BMJ global health, 7(5), p.e007866.
Hayashi, Y. (2016). Elder Abuse and Family Transformation. Family Violence in Japan: A Life Course Perspective, 123-151.
O’Keefe, A. (2013). Suicide in Japan. Confronting Death:: College Students on the Community of Mortals, 187-196.
Romano, A. (2018). Logan Paul, and the toxic prank culture that created him, explained. [online] Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2018/1/3/16841160/logan-paul-aokigahara-suicide-controversy
Wiebe, E., Shaw, J., Green, S., Trouton, K., & Kelly, M. (2018). Reasons for requesting medical assistance in dying. Canadian Family Physician, 64(9), 674-679.
Xiang, X., Lu, X., Halavanau, A., Xue, J., Sun, Y., Lai, P. H. L., & Wu, Z. (2020). Modern Ubasute: Public Discourse and Sentiment about Older Adults and COVID19 Using Machine Learning. Innovation in Aging, 4(Suppl 1), 952.