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9 Souls

cast: Yoshio Harada, Ryuhei Matsuda, Koji Chihara, Takuji Suzuki, and Mame Yamada
director: Toshiaki Toyoda
120 minutes (unrated) 2003
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artsmagic NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
After the nihilistic if somewhat formulaic Blue Spring, already a minor cult item, writer-director Toshiaki Toyoda may well have produced his breakout film with 9 Souls - rather aptly, as it is based around a prison escape. A convicts-on-the-run come road movie, his work startles the viewer through its sure handling of humour, pathos and violence, combined with a narrative scheme with interesting metaphysical overtones. As the film starts, Michiru (Blue Spring's star Ryuhei Matsuda) is about to kill his father. Although the crime and consequences are not shown, he's soon incarcerated with nine other felons all of whom, excluding one called the 'counterfeit king', promptly escape - but not before their left-behind friend has intimated the hiding place of some loot. After hijacking a camper van and some early mishaps - including some casual abuse of a sheep worthy of Padre Padrone - they reach the location, only to discover just a tin box containing a mysterious 'key of life'. The original focus of their journey gone, the group nevertheless continues on together as, one by one, they attempt to re-gather their lives with various sad and violent consequences...

Resembling an eccentric family unit for most of the film, the inmates of the camper van even have a 'dad' of sorts (Torakichi, ironically jailed for killing his son). As a crowd their several amusing escapades give the first part of the film a humorous feel that gradually darkens as time goes on. Whether family, clan or yakuza, the dynamics and loyalties within a group is a staple of Japanese cinema and often creates a useful microcosm of Nipponese society along the way. Here we've a disparate group of criminals (their various activities, listed carefully on screen, have included bombing, pornography, murder and drug dealing) bonded by sudden common need and experience. After escaping they retain a kind of immoral gravity which keeps them together on the road, until they move apart and face their own destinies - which can prove as bleak as the world of school was in Blue Spring. But the difference is that here director Toyoda opens out matters, building onto his characters' various adventures a wider scheme than just social comment, one which finally makes of the camper van more than the earthbound transport they ride in, and out of their personal journeys springs something more profound.

Toyada has admitted that he's wanted to make a prison-break movie ever since he became involved in the film business, as for him "it's a way of escaping my own blocked feelings, society and myself." The blocked feelings revealed here seem to revolve around the incipient insecurities and pain of relationships with kith and kin, as well as the more eccentric ones than can form between those with less expected connections. Like the foliage in Michiru's striking dream at the start of the film, spreading across the metropolis, the processes of life cannot be denied, whether they be overwhelming or surreal.

Most road movies tend towards the episodic and, with its large number of protagonists, 9 Souls is no exception. What's refreshing to western viewers is the relative lack of sentimentality along the way. Even the scene when Torakichi is spurned by his daughter on her wedding day is done with a relatively light touch, making its point without hammering home the issues - a tense encounter which in American cinema, one presumes, would be accompanied by emotional posturing. Another standout is the scene in the restaurant where loveable 'loose cannon' Uchimaya is discovered working as waiter. His display of self despair which follows provides an apt illustration of the secret desperation many of his fellow escapees must feel as they in turn face their own ghosts. Several of the key encounters are violent ones, one or two especially so it has to be said, but this is not at heart a brutal film. After all these are guilty, dangerous men and it is natural that their histories and futures should reflect that.
Toyada's staging is sensitive and he handles his comic scenes with a light touch. (Although it's been done before, one especially cherishes the convicts dressing as women to secure a meal.) His film also includes its share of surreal moments, such as when the group's dwarf doctor, Shiratori, encounters the erotic dancer. She is one to whom he once unselfishly donated a kidney: now, through a viewing hole in the wall, he gently reaches out towards her operation scar like a man in prison yearning towards freedom. By the end of the film, although it's clear they've always been trapped, either by weakness or circumstance, the convict crew do indeed achieve a freedom of some sort. It's to the director's credit that he does not spell out such final matters too heavy-handedly.

At around two hours length some have complained that 9 Souls is a little too long but, with so many characters, it has certainly a lot of plot resolutions to fit in, even excluding the metaphysical framing device. This viewer found it hardly dragged at all. Along with Ryuhei Kitamura, Toyoda is one of the more interesting directors emerging in Japanese cinema becoming known in the west, and this film confirms his talent.

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