Reviewby Carlo Santos, Apr 27th 2010
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit
To combat the country's social ills, Japan has instituted a "National Welfare Program" where 1 in every 1000 citizens between the ages of 18 to 24 is randomly selected to die—and is only informed 24 hours beforehand through a notice known as an ikigami. Although the program is meant to teach others the value of life, it also causes problems when the victims behave rashly right before their deaths. When a recently out-of-work schoolteacher gets his ikigami, he goes on a vengeful rampage against those who wronged him at his former job. Can he find redemption at the hands of one of his students? Another ikigami recipient, a mother with a young daughter, tries to save her child from suffering the same tragic fate when she reaches adulthood. The girl's irresponsible father will have to turn things around if there's to be any hope for this troubled family.
In the past, Ikigami has focused on the individual—what would YOU do if you had only 24 hours left to live?—and dealt with those who were living mostly for themselves, like grown-up kids, young couples, and struggling artists. Relationships with others, while still important, were treated as supporting elements to the story. With Volume 4, however, it's the relationships that take center stage: what happens to everyone else if you only had 24 hours left to live? That's because this installment shows a different side of young adulthood, the side where one takes on a position of authority: teachers, parents, and the challenge of caring for the younger generation. Such situations lend themselves naturally to emotional ups and downs ... but whether they also lend themselves to strong plotlines isn't so clear.
The first story, about a schoolteacher who tries to find meaning at the end of his life, is the classic example of wanting to convey a strong message—but not being sure what that message is. The elements of classroom melodrama are all there: an idealistic protagonist ("Children can do no harm," he believes), a problem student who won't be taught, a shocking (if contrived) incident that drives the teacher into a corner right before he gets his ikigami. Yet it all adds up to an anticlimactic ending where an inspirational lesson is learned ... if we could figure out what that lesson is. Is this about the value of life, or the importance of educators, or how it's wrong to take revenge violently, or what? The dramatic build-up is handled well, yet when the time comes to deliver the final blow, the drama just fizzles out.
Fortunately, the second half of this volume has a better sense of direction, with a desperate mother trying to find an acceptable fate for her soon-to-be-orphaned child. Like the first story, it lays out the elements of melodrama, but with a family theme: the distracted dad, the struggling young mother, the adorable and innocent kid. Unlike the first story, though, it moves with a greater sense of purpose: save the child! This even results in some fantastic (if outlandish) action scenes, making the story a bit more exciting than the typical Ikigami weepfest. Yet once again, the final scene has the feeling of too many messages colliding at once: how to give your child a valuable future, how to be a responsible dad, how to set one's priorities in life, and other self-help advice that probably could have been trimmed down.
And how is our morally troubled ikigami deliveryman, Fujimoto, doing? Once again, the series hints lightly at some kind of rebellion against National Welfare, but is still too afraid to tackle the toughest moral question of all—the very existence of this radical government program.
A striking artistic style fits the series well, with strong highlights and shadows adding an extra layer of drama to each scene. The characters' facial expressions also convey powerful emotions on just about every page, although sometimes the designs push too much toward the edge of ugliness (especially the main characters in the first story, where just about everyone looks like a creep). Still, the level of visual detail creates a necessary sense of realism—the feeling that these are genuine problems faced by genuine people, not some cartoonish fantasy-world scenario. Meanwhile, lavish full-page spreads and well-spaced layouts keep the pacing in check: instead of rushing to face the consequences of impending death, each story is able to develop naturally over the course of a hundred pages.
The feel of naturalism also comes through in the dialogue, where the characters discuss complex emotions but do so in simple terms. Of course, the script is at its most exciting when the protagonists have turned to sheer desperation—the teacher verbally lashing out at his victims, the mother snapping at anyone who would stand in her way—but the eloquence of the quiet moments stands out as well, especially in epilogue scenes of each story. Sound effects, meanwhile, are typically sparse in a drama series like this—but when they do appear, the retouching into English text makes them stand out more than they should. Still, everything else reads smoothly enough for it not to be a distraction.
When it comes to matters of the heart, Ikigami definitely hits hard—and that's to be expected when confronting matters of life and death. It hits especially hard in this volume, where it's not only the victim's life that matters, but also the lives of those who are in their care. Powerful emotions come through in the detailed, expressive visuals, as well as in the deliberate pacing of each story, but simply laying those feelings out there doesn't always add up to a clear conclusion. And that's what stops this volume from being a dramatic masterpiece: it's trying to say so many things about the meaning of life, the bonds of human love, the cruelties of society, and other deep thoughts, that the message comes out muddled in the end. So even as Ikigami touches the heart, it leaves us scratching our heads. But isn't life just like that sometimes?
Overall : B-
Story : B-
Art : B
+ Dramatic stories and expressive visuals provide more food for thought on the value of life and death.
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