From the back cover:
Thank you for your loyalty. You’ve no doubt noticed that the world is a troubled place. People are apathetic, lazy, unmotivated. You’ve probably asked yourself
WHY ISN’T ANYTHING BEING DONE TO STOP THIS SYSTEMATIC DECLINE?
Rest assured that measures are being taken. Beginning immediately, we will randomly select a different citizen each day who will be killed within 24 hours of notification. We believe this will help remind all people how precious life is and how important it is to be a productive, active member of society.
Thank you for your continued attention and your cooperation and participation…
In this dystopian tale, Japan has passed the National Welfare Act, designed to help its citizens lead more productive lives by instilling in them the fear of death. To this aim, one in a thousand children entering the first grade is injected with a nanocapsule along with their standard immunizations. This nanocapsule is preprogrammed to rupture in the pulmonary artery sometime between the ages of 18 and 24, killing the person instantly. The identities of the supposedly randomly selected capsule recipients are tracked by the government and 24 hours before the capture’s rupture, a messenger dispatches an ikigami (or death paper) notifying them of their selection. We follow Fujimoto, one such messenger, as he delivers these ikigami and struggles with questions about his work that he cannot express, lest he himself be injected with a capsule.
Rather than focus on Fujimoto exclusively, each volume contains two three-chapter stories about a recipient of an ikigami delivered by Fujimoto and how they spend their final day. In volume one, a store clerk who was bullied in high school uses his final day to exact revenge upon his tormenters and a singer who had chosen an opportunity for stardom over his best friend uses his last live performance to sing his friend’s composition on the radio. In volume two, a director squabbles with his girlfriend over his drug use but tosses aside his big break when she receives an ikigami and a young employee at a nursing home makes a connection with an elderly woman right before he receives his death notice.
Almost without exception, these tales are extremely depressing. The first story in volume two is the worst on that score, but basically, any time you see two people who mean anything to each other in this series, you know that they are about to be torn apart, one way or another. Even the most grim tales manage to offer something optimistic, though. In volume one, the final act of the store clerk is to give advice to another victim of bullying while hearing his own song on the radio inspires the singer’s former partner to take up music again. In volume two, the death of his girlfriend spurs the director to finally clean up his act. It’s only the last story of volume two that is actually uplifting, though, because Takebe, the recipient of the ikigami, is truly satisfied by how much he was able to help the woman in his care, and so dies without regret.
One thing that becomes clear in these stories is that the law is not having its desired effect. No one—with the possible exception of Takebe, who has tried to be his best because that’s his nature rather than due to fear of death—in these stories has become particularly productive. Because only 1 in 1000 people have the capsule, they had believed it wouldn’t happen to them. Some are spurred to action after they receive the ikigami, but others are too paralyzed to do much of anything as their time slips away.
Fujimoto is merely a recurring character throughout and we don’t learn too much about him. It’s clear that his job is taking a toll on both him and his personal relationships, though, and though he succeeds in burying his concerns for a while, they do have a way of returning to the surface. Through his eyes, we see the training seminars given by the government about the process and how the recipients are theoretically entirely random. Fujimoto, however, notices that, in practice, things are rather sloppy, with ikigami arriving at the last minute and with incorrect case notes attached. By the end of the second volume, he’s feeling numb, and a brief flare of hope when he meets a therapist that genuinely seems to be offering solace to the recipients is cruelly extinguished when she reveals that her clients only appear to’ve been calmed because she drugs them.
Mase’s art is dark and gloomy, as befits the story, but manages to move the story along rather than hinder it. Characters’ faces are frequently distorted into expressions of anguish or other raw emotion, so the art is sometimes a bit unattractive, but again, that still serves the story. One thing I especially like is that most everyone actually looks Japanese. Fujimoto, in particular, has a nice, understated design that looks pretty realistic.
Ultimately, while I’m curious to see whether Fujimoto will be able to continue to rationalize his job or if he’ll become a “social miscreant” and attempt to effect change, I’m not sure if I’ll be continuing with this series. It’s just such a tremendous downer. In fact, I must now seek solace in some girly manhwa as a mental palate cleanser.
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit is published in English by VIZ. Volume one is out now and volume two will be available in August 2009. In Japan, it’s currently serialized in Young Sunday and six volumes have been released so far.
Review copies provided by the publisher.