The central idea behind Motoro Mase's Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (Viz Media) is one that's fueled a million late-night bull sessions: suppose you learned you only had 24 hours to live — how would you spend your final day? In Mase's "mature"-rated manga, this question is randomly forced on the citizens of an authoritarian society. Pursuant to the National Welfare Act, every citizen in this alternate world dystopia is immunized while they are in elementary school. The catch: .01 per cent of these immunizations contain something extra, a "special nano-capsule" set to rupture in the recipient's heart on a predetermined date, causing instantaneous death. Through a complex system, the government monitors these capsules so their doomed carriers can learn of their fate 24 hours before they die and be given time to get their affairs in order.
Our entrance into this disturbing world is a young functionary named Fujimoto, who we first meet undergoing orientation training in the Ministry of Welfare and Health as a deliverer of the official death notices called Ikigami (Death Paper). Fujimoto struggles with the morality of his job, which basically involves delivering horrible news to innocent people. The government rationalizes its seemingly random series of death sentences by noting that the uncertainty hovering over every citizen's life "makes them value life more and increases social productivity," though Fujimoto has his doubts. He doesn't voice these reservations too openly, however, since, as he's repeatedly reminded, "Social miscreants will be injected with the capsule."
Grim stuff, though readers looking for a new version of the ultra-violent, pulpy Battle Royale or Death Note may be disappointed. Having established his oppressive system, Mase instead hands much of the first volume to two recipients of an Ikigami, detailing how each responds to the news that their hours are numbered. First is a high school dropout still nursing poisonous grudges over the brutal mistreatment he received at the hands of his classmates; the second is a former street musician who's sold out his considerable songwriting ability to be the lesser half or a vacuous pop duo.
Though the first episode contains harsh violence (including a mildly explicit sexual assault), Mase strives to make each story end on a cautiously upbeat note, even if we're not sure we entirely believe it. While we're told that the National Welfare Act inspires citizens to appreciate life more, in both cases that doesn't appear to have applied; both Ikigami recipients appear to gotten stuck in a rut when they receive their death notices. The first, Yosuke, is stuck in a dead-end job and living with his parents; the second, Torio, has abandoned his muse for a shot at short-term fame. (We know his egotistical singing partner will abandon him as soon as the duo gets hot.) Yosuke responds to his Ikigami by revisiting two of his former classmates, Torio by attempting to go through his final day as if nothing has changed. "Isn't that what it means to be a pro?" he asks himself. "Isn't that what it means to be an artist?"
Mase depicts these two stories in a fairly straight-laced style: no visual shorthand or sudden bursts of cartoonishness, but fairly realistic renderings of place and character that wouldn't look out of place in a classic serialized American comic strip ("Mary Perkins On Stage," for instance). A few flashback sequences can be initially confusing: the artist doesn't always border them as is the convention, and, in a few instances, I found myself having to backtrack just to get what I was reading. But the art generally suits Mase's blend of the dark and the occasionally sentimental.
As a serialized story, Ikigami has had an extended run in its native land — along with the inevitable movie adaptation — so one hopes that Fujimoto, who's essentially treated as a vessel for establishing the house rules in this volume, has a more active role as the storyline progresses. The first volume plants the seeds of Fujimoto's ultimate disillusionment with the system that employs him, though I'm betting that it'll take another four or five volumes before he decides to do anything about it. In the meantime, there's still that intriguing question at the series' center to ponder.