Reviewby Carlo Santos, Aug 20th 2011
Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit
The Japanese government has instituted a "National Welfare Act" to make its citizens value their lives more. What this program does, however, is incredibly drastic: people between the ages of 18 and 24 are randomly marked for death, and will receive 24 hours' advance notice through a form known as an ikigami. Kengo Fujimoto is a civil servant who personally delivers each ikigami, and his job has become even harder now that government agents are watching him for any sign of dissent. Still, Fujimoto's problems are nothing compared to those selected to die. A young photographer must make peace with his mentor when he learns he has 24 hours to live, while an aspiring breakdancer who has almost given up on his dreams must rekindle his passion one last time. Can they find meaning in their lives now that they are facing death?
Ikigami puts away the political fighting gloves in Volume 7, opting instead to focus on personal issues this time around. Of course, with the firestorm surrounding Fujimoto's involvement with "national traitor" Nanako Kubo, who can blame him for wanting to lie low for a while? As a result, this book gives us a couple of well-rounded stories, but ones that rely on a familiar, well-established formula. Even so, Ikigami on autopilot is still better than most other series on their best days. This volume may not dig deep into political issues, but it handles the emotional ones well.
The rigid structure of Ikigami—three chapters per story, six chapters per volume—is both a blessing and a curse, as proven by the textbook examples here. The three-chapter plan ensures a distinct beginning, middle and end to each arc, but it's all too easy to see major plot points coming: the protagonist gets his ikigami by the end of the first chapter, has to work out his issues through the second, and finishes up the third with some kind of personal epiphany shortly before death.
Despite these predictable rhythms, however, each story comes into its own as details about the characters are filled out. That's why the first chapters always follow that certain pattern—to build an emotional connection with the reader, to introduce us to real human beings before proceeding with the rest of the tale. What could be more down-to-earth than a boy who turned his love of photography into a career, or a once-talented street dancer who wants to prove himself to his peers? A carefully crafted supporting cast also adds to the realism of each situation: friends, family, teachers, and rivals remind us that these unsettling, pre-planned deaths do not occur in a closed-off laboratory for social experiments, but do affect a wider community. And it is how those relationships are affected, before and after death, that make each story complete.
However, the emotionally charged situations also lead to some pitfalls of contrived, cardboard storytelling. The mentor in the photographer's story, for example, is portrayed as a stubborn tech-hating traditionalist—an understandable viewpoint, and necessary for the story's main conflict, but it also makes him stick out as a gruff, cartoonish villain among a cast of more reasonable-minded characters. The dance storyline also wallows in a pool of sentimentality, with its mashup of the "my parents don't understand my dreams!" and "strive to be the best dancer!" clichés. The final product is still heartfelt and genuine, but it inevitably brushes up against some schmaltz along the way.
With so much care and detail going into each story's characters, one might expect the same of the art—and that's true, to a certain extent. The character designs are very wide-ranging, with young, old, fat, skinny, attractive, and not-so-attractive types all coming together to form a believable cross-section of society. (Certainly, it's a lot more believable than gorgeous teenagers running around fighting the forces of evil.) Deep shading, dramatic angles, and page-sweeping illustrations also make the series' most intense moments stand out visually. But these striking details only go so far, and in more ordinary scenes, certain flaws become evident: backgrounds are sometimes just lazily re-touched photos, and some facial expressions have this stiff, dead-eyed look to them—not exactly what one is looking for in an emotionally driven work. A tendency to fill in everything with gray screentones also weakens some of the black-and-white vividness.
The larger page size of Viz's Signature Edition imprint helps to bring out the best qualities in the artwork; those pivotal double-page spreads are all the more dramatic thanks to a couple extra inches of room. The translated dialogue, on the other hand, goes for an understated, less-is-more approach: the characters speak in simple terms and let their actions carry the real load. There are no lengthy speeches here—just a few succinct, life-affirming one-liners and some thoughtful streams of interior monologue. (One of the most gripping sequences is when Katsu, the dancer, has to confront his own sense of pride and tells himself to be honest with his buddies.) The only time the dialogue gets fancy is when Fujimoto has to ham it up for the National Welfare authorities, and we all know where their sincerity level lies.
Volume 7 of Ikigami may not be a high point in the series—that would have back been when Fujimoto crossed paths with anti-National Welfare dissenters—but it shows that, even when retreating into a comfort zone, the stories still resonate. The carefully-planned three-act structure, although predictable, allows plenty of room for each protagonist to develop, work his way through various conflicts, and finally achieve a sense of closure at the end. For good, character-driven short stories, that's about all one could ask for—and the artwork seals the deal with emotionally striking scenes that arrive at just the right moment. The idea of a government that randomly kills off its citizens still remains, thankfully, pure fiction. But the lessons we learn about valuing our own lives are very real.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ Overcomes rigid structure to tell genuine, thought-provoking stories about how to live one's life with no regrets.
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