Ikinai was the first Office Kitano production not directed by Takeshi Kitano himself. It was written and directed by two of his former collaborators, comedian Dankan (of Getting Any? fame) and his assistant director Hiroshi Shimizu (Hana-bi) respectively.
Twelve men take their seats on a tour bus for a journey across the island of Okinawa. This however, is no normal tourist trip. The men are all deeply in debt and plan to commit collective suicide by driving off a cliff - making their deaths an accident and leaving their families with enough insurance money to pay off the debts. But the plan goes awry from the start with the arrival of young Mitsuki, a girl whose ticket for the trip used to belong her uncle, who is now in an asylum. She is totally unaware of the plans of her uncle's friends and insists on going along for what she thinks is a touristic ride.
As the tour goes on (the participants snapping pictures of every location, leaving a record of their last moments on earth) the girl's presence re-awakens a collective will to live among the twelve men. But tour guide Aragaki (Dankan) is determined to see this plan through until the end, realising very well that if they continue now, the girl has to die with them. After all, sparing her would cast doubts on their "accidental" deaths. Now the men are faced with an even greater dilemma: are their crushing debts worth one innocent life?
Though thrown into a rather alien situation as the film starts (one is asked to feel for characters faced with an extreme dilemma), the viewer quickly identifies and is with these people all the way. It's not quite a case of rooting for them or hoping that they will finish their journey unscathed, but rather that director Shimizu leaves the viewer curious, anxious almost, of what's to come and of how these people will fare. The reward is not only in the darkly comic shock ending, but in watching the film itself.
Ikinai has somewhat deridingly been called a "Kitano without guns". Much as I feel this comment undervalues both Ikinai and the works of Kitano, it is clear that there are thematic parallels. Like Kitano's best works, Ikinai excels because of the humanity of its characters. In fact, for a film about death, Ikinai is full of life. Its vibrant characters, that strong sense of humanity and above all true joy make it a wonderful cinematic experience.