Due out in May from Viz, Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, by Motoro Mase, is a psychological study of death. However, it should be noted, the creator constructs intimate portraits of not the experience of death, but how the knowledge of it as an inevitability can both transform and intensify one's experience of oneself.
Ikigami takes place in an alternative Japan, where the government strives to maintain complete social control of its citizenry by infecting 1 of every 1,000 people with a capsule that will kill them when they are between the ages of 18 and 24. Every child, upon entering grade school, receives a vaccination that may or may not have this death-inducing capsule. Anyone who voices any form of dissent against this system or the government is summarily injected with the capsule. It is assumed fear of an untimely death will keep citizens in line, since, according to the government, the "uncertainty makes them value life more and increases social productivity."
To me, this manga was less about the insidious nature of the effect of this "welfare law," upon the population as a whole, than a series of intense and absorbing case studies of individuals who have 24 hours in which to come to terms with their short life and rapidly approaching death. "Ikigami" refers to a "death paper," in which agents of the government inform those infected with the capsule that they have 24 hours to live. Fujimoto, a fairly average everyman, receives around 3 death sentences of a month which he must hand out to unsuspecting citizens.
At first it didn't make sense to me that people are informed of their death beforehand -- after all, wouldn't this be like setting off ticking time bombs, since these people have nothing left to lose? And the first case study, of a young man who was savagely bullied as a teenager and whose receipt of the death paper frees his badly damaged psyche to explode in a revenge spree, only seems to emphasize the lack of logic in informing people of their death ahead of time. However, families are actually compensated handsomely for those who die due to the welfare law. If one commits bad acts before death the family loses their bereavement pension and will themselves have to compensate the victims of their dead family member. Yet this young man's violence forces Fujimoto, the bearer of these sacrificial lambs' death notifications, to question not simply the effect of the Ikigami upon the individual, but the very system itself.
The second case study in this volume reveals that sometimes knowledge of our own immutable mortality can release us from fear and shame. Another young man has betrayed his dreams of becoming a rock musician with his writing and performing partner, for the easy fame of pop music insipidness. Before his death, can he live out his dream in anyway that will matter? Time is against him, of course, but the real challenge is whether or not he can be true to himself before his life runs out.
Right now the biggest weakness in this title is the fact that the main character, Fujimoto, doesn't seem to impact the narrative in any significant way just yet. He does his job, hands out death papers, and sits around to reflect upon the outcome of his and his government's interference in the "natural" cycles of human life and death. I'm left wondering what will make this complacent government agent intervene in this terrible system, but the case study approach is certainly strong enough to carry the title for now.
Review Copy provided by Viz.