Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 4th 2009
To combat the ills of society, the Japanese government has instituted a shocking new "National Welfare" program. As children, every citizen receives a special injection that randomly contains a timed nanocapsule; once they reach adulthood, one out of every 1000 citizens will be notified by an "ikigami," or death notice, that their nanocapsule will kill them in 24 hours. This program is intended to place a greater importance on the value of life—but sometimes there are adverse results. When a troubled young man receives his ikigami, he goes on a crime spree and turns against his politician mother, whose lack of emotion has left her family a mess. Another ikigami recipient, who has built his life on scams and lies, decides to do one good deed before he dies ... but he must tell one last lie to pull it off.
The trouble with Ikigami, at least through the first couple of volumes, is that it would keep trying to tackle this difficult social issue (can the value of life really be taught through pre-arranged deaths?) and then turn into a weepy personal drama by the end of each story. The lead character would be this innocent, noble soul who wanted to accomplish some heart-wrenching goal before kicking the bucket 24 hours later, and then we're all supposed to shed a few cathartic tears as the government continues to commit these atrocities across the nation.
The first half of Volume 3, by contrast, has no noble souls. And it probably won't induce any tears. Yet it is probably the most emotionally complex story in the series so far, showing the true consequences of a National Welfare program. Despite the two extremely unlikable characters at its center, or perhaps because of them—a mother who thinks nothing of using her son's impending death for political gain, and the son who thinks nothing of turning a gun on his mother for the sake of getting back at her—it becomes a compelling story that leaves us pondering the price of familial love. Even more than that, it reveals the true price of government-assisted, randomly selected deaths: people are going to start going nuts. What else would you expect when they have 24 hours and nothing to lose? As this goes to show, the best personal drama isn't necessarily the kind that makes you cry, but the kind that makes you pause and reflect.
The second half of the book is less daring, going back to the standard melodramatic route of other stories in the series. It's a tale of redemption with a typical tear-jerker finish, and has to jump through some rather silly hoops to get there. The unusual twist in the final act pushes suspension of disbelief over the line—would the entire workforce of a hospital really bend that far backward just to help one man carry out his dying wish? The relationships between the characters in this one are also far less dynamic than in the previous story; there just isn't much conflict or excitement about a guy whose goal is to help out his little sister. Standing in the background of all this, meanwhile, is the series' one recurring character, National Welfare agent Fujimoto. Every now and then he jumps in to narrate his conflicted feelings about the ikigami system, but if that's all he's there for, and isn't going to evolve as a character, then he is best left out of sight, which indeed he was for most of this volume's first half.
Although Ikigami is all about exploring the complexities of society and human emotion, the artwork is simpler in its approach—most likely because fancy visuals would only interfere with the essence of the story. Which is not to say that the art is lacking in quality or depth: if anything, the handling of light and shade is as good as any manga that's praised for being "beautiful," and the choice of dramatic view angles adds variety to a series that relies heavily on dialogue scenes. But Motoro Mase's greatest skill lies in laying out the panels and scenes in a sensible order so that we can become fully immersed in the story, and not have to backtrack to figure out what just happened. Character designs, however, are the one weak spot here—most of them are on the dull and unattractive side, and Mase is a bit too much in love with the "surprised eyes" expression, which is supposed to convey a number of deep and troubled emotions, but after a while just starts to get repetitive.
Another case of simpler being better can be found in the dialogue, which uses a natural, conversational style to express some very deep and powerful feelings. (Compare this against a lot of overwrought school-themed romance manga, where the characters talk to each other in elliptical compound sentences to express some very shallow feelings.) And really, what could explain the turmoil between mother and son better than a good old shouting match? This translation even manages to bring out the subtleties of the characters' personalities in the way they talk—someone from off the street, for example, would be more colloquial than one who was raised to be polite and businesslike. One thing this edition lacks, however, is a section of cultural or translation notes, which comes as a surprise considering that it's getting the "Signature" label treatment with oversize pages and a $13 price tag.
Although Ikigami is founded upon an outlandish premise that would never really work in modern society, it's surprising how honest and down-to-earth each story turns out. Perhaps the reason for this success is because Motoro Mase is simply answering a question that resonates with all of us: "What would you do if you had 24 hours left to live?" One of the answers ends up being the series' most emotionally challenging story yet, a showdown between two flawed personalities that can only end in tragedy. After that it's back to the usual share of tissue-box melodrama, which even has to use an unrealistic plot device to get to the ending. But even in its lesser chapters, Ikigami still gets the point across with its character-driven storytelling and simple but effective artwork. No one should ever have to die this way, but by contemplating it in a work of fiction, we can indeed learn to appreciate the value of life.
Overall : B+
Story : A-
Art : B
+ Complex characters and powerful emotions make the first half of this volume one of the best installments in the series so far.
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