Hrm… Had I realized that this was going to be the last volume of this title, I probably would’ve postponed the podcast for another year. The issue is moot now, as mangaka Motoro Mase’s drama about a society where people who are randomly injected with a capsule as children will die early deaths as adults has finished in much the same way as it has carried on through its run. Are parts of this volume overwrought? Oh yes. Does it contain more than a little bit of silliness? Most assuredly. Is it satisfying if you’re willing to look past these two issues? If you’ve made it this far into the series, then the answer is “Yes.”
The first story told here sets up the finale as it deals with the peacekeepers assigned to the Ministry of Welfare and Health -- the people who issue the Ikigami death notices. Nakagami is an effective member of the unit because of his aggressive nature. That’s something he inherited from his father and has caused him no end of trouble in life. Yet when he receives his Ikigami, Nakagami thinks that his troubles will finally be over. Or, at least they would be if it weren’t for the intrusion of a foreign dignitary from another nation: Japan.
If you’ve been reading “Ikigami” up to this point, you’re probably going, “But wait? Hasn’t this story taking place in Japan all this time?” Technically, no. The name of this country, its “ally,” and its “neighbors” has been kept deliberately vague by Mase all this time to present the story as a kind of allegory. I’d say that this was clever if the characters didn’t have Japanese names, observe Japanese customs, and have a culture almost identical to Japan. Without naming this country yet making it almost identical to Japan, Mase hasn’t created an allegory. He has created Not Japan. So if anyone was concerned about how the version of Japan that we’ve seen in this series has instituted a program of randomly killing people aged 18 to 24, you can rest easy because it wasn’t that country after all. This all took place in Not Japan.
The twist here doesn’t even make for an improved story in the opening arc as Nakagami finds himself facing off with a female Japanese bureaucrat who is wracked with guilt over how she worked through the sudden death of her daughter. Compared to the other dramatic histrionics that have marked this title, the back-and-forth between the two isn’t really any better or worse than what we’ve seen before. I’ll admit that who gets the last word in the end was a bit surprising while Nakagami meets a better fate than most of the Ikigami recipients in this series, all things considered.
Yet the key developments in this story are saved for Ikigami deliveryman Kengo Fujimoto and the system itself. Long the face of “the banality of evil” in this title, Kengo has since been awakened to the injustices of the system and has taken steps to expose it. Kengo’s efforts have also helped sparked the riots that Nakagami finds himself involved in at the end of his life. However, certain events find the deliveryman removed from his job and sent to a government re-education facility where, based on the brief glimpses we see of activities there and his haggard appearance on release, he most likely had to admit that he saw five lights before being discharged. It’s not until afterwards that Kengo learns the circumstances behind his admission to the facility and the true purpose of the Ikigami program.
As silly as the whole Not Japan business is, the revelation about why the Ikigami program was instituted almost makes a certain kind of sense. Saying that the U.S. needed a ready supply of soldiers to fight a potential war with China seems absurd and almost inflammatory when you say it like that, but removing the names does allow for better suspension of disbelief. It’s still a bit ridiculous, and not helped by the exposition from Kengo’s former boss who explains all this and completely fails to notice the effect it’s having on his former subordinate. This leads Kengo to one final act of defiance that also involves Nanase Kubo, the counselor at the Ministry he had the hots for but ultimately turned out to be a rebel.
I was hoping for a “rouse the country, bring down the system” kind of finale and that’s not what we get here. Instead, Mase focuses his narrative on Kengo’s attempt to flee the country with Nanase which works on its own level. If you’re familiar with stories involving totalitarian regimes that know their citizens’ every move, then it’s fairly likely you’ll be able to predict the general arc of Kengo’s escape attempt and the complications that arise as a result of it. Familiar as it is, the execution is skillful and moves fast enough to keep the reader involved. While Mase hasn’t really been one for subtlety, I liked how he zeroed in on Kengo’s personal escape attempt here since the series has really been about his (very) slow awakening to the fact that he’s been on the wrong side all these years. He doesn’t get to bring down the system in the end, but the manga does serve up an event that lets all of the supports of the Ikigami system know that the security they’ve traded their futures for is ultimately worthless.
After ten volumes, “Ikigami” doesn’t really tell us anything that we didn’t already know. Blind faith in our governments is never a good thing and true freedom only exists when we stand up to question their actions. This is the moral to thousands of other stories and I found its execution over these ten volumes to be reasonably entertaining, if occasionally eye-rollingly overwrought and silly. Kengo’s journey over the course of the series was its strongest part, and Mase was smart to give it center focus for the final act. That helps get the title past a lot of its usual issues and allows it to go out on a high note while we’re given enough information to ponder the fate of Not Japan ourselves.
...Okay, maybe not that high of a note but at least I’m not left regretting the fact that I took the time to read this series and that’s got to count for something.