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9 Souls (Toyoda Toshiaki 2003)


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9 Souls
[Nine Souls]

Genre: Escaped Convict Coming Home Road Trip

review in one breath

In 2002 Sai Yoichi directed the well-received Keimusha no Naka ("Doing Time") focusing on the hopes and hopelessness of five prisoners all sharing the same cell. The backdrop of Sai's exploration is the thoroughly structured yet near-meaningless daily regimen imposed upon prisoners as a form of discipline and rehabilitation. Through this grueling yet mundane daily routine, each prisoner either gradually comes to terms with himself or mentally/physically collapses under the strain. Keimusha no Naka is drawn in thoroughly traditional strokes, focusing on a classic humanitarianism and casting the highly popular talent of Yamazaki Tsutomu in the lead role.


In many ways director Toyoda Toshiaki's 2003 film 9 Souls under review here is a recreation of Sai's 2002 project drawn in the new images of Japan's extreme genre and casting both new and old talent from the fringes of mainstream film. 9 Souls focuses upon the hopes and hopelessness of nine prisoners all sharing the same cell. The backdrop of Toyoda's exploration is a road-trip to a supposed stash of money following their escape. Through the toils and experiences of the road-trip, each of the prisoner's inner hopes and demons gradually emerge, not in the traditional vocabulary of Keimusha no Naka, but in the harsher, almost nihilistic perspective of Japan's new genre films.

And indeed director Toyoda is very familiar with this nihilistic perspective and has explored it in a series of very impressive and well-received films including the almost unparalleled Pornostar (1998) and Aoi Haru (Blue Spring) (2001), both films which, like 9 Souls, Toyoda served as both writer and director. Several of the cast Toyoda has used in the past, such as Chihara Koji, Maro Akaji and Onimaru (from Pornostar) and Matsuda Ryuhei, Kee and Yamada Mame (from Aoi Haru). Toyoda also casts Harada Yoshio (Onibi) as the central character Torakichi. This cast (and others) creates a highly interesting and diverse collection of personalities for Toyoda to observe and introspect throughout the prolonged road trip in the cramped confines of a small camper.

Also of note here (and also traditionally represented in Keimusha no Naka) is a highly effective soundtrack which easily accounts for one-third of the emotion generated by this film. Consisting often of contemporary rock or hip-hop, it generates a very cutting-edge nuance which can make even still shots of rainy Tokyo streets seem emotionally invested.

So all the pieces of the film thus far discussed seem quite on target and come together to form a rather compelling and entertaining narrative filled with interesting characters. The only thing left to discuss is how Toyoda chooses to express the self-realization or fulfillment of each of the prisoner's hopes or lack thereof.

But first, a little storyline.

story

Michiru (Matsuda Ryuhei) has been recently convicted for murdering his abusive father and is introduced to his new home, a prison cell occupied by eight others convicted of various yet similarly heinous crimes. The most formidable and obvious leader of the group is Torakichi who is serving time for killing his son. With the help of an adept escapist, the nine soon flee the confines of the prison in pursuit of a rumored stash of money.

Through humorous situations and sheer tenacity, the rag-tag group hijacks a small camper and slowly make their way to a small school at the foot of Mount Fuji in search of the stashed loot. Along the way they discuss their dreams to which they hope to return now that they are on the outside. And one by one, each of the nine is presented with an opportunity to right their former wrongs or confront past demons. And one by one, the size of the group diminishes.

Within this dynamic the anti-authoritarian Michiru and the highly authoritarian Torakichi repeatedly clash, culminating in their own self-realizations when they become the only two remaining.

verdict

In many respects this was a very satisfying and entertaining film. Along with an excellent soundtrack, the cinematography is skillful and the often comedic narrative elements keep the storyline moving along. There is also plenty of visual flash ranging from strip clubs to bloodshed which keep 9 Souls an action-packed story.

In another, more fundamental way, however, I wished director Toyoda had given as much thought to his treatment of the resolution of his characters' predicament as he did to the manner in which the resolution was presented visually and audibly.

the following discussion may contain "spoilers"

Overall, I felt Toyoda's treatment of the existential side of the narrative was way too simplistic and repetitious. His modus operandi throughout seemed to require each of the nine characters to completely abandon any notion of self-preservation, like stoic moths to a flame, which seemed to defy the initial zest and bravado with which they gleefully escaped prison and dreamed of new lives and riches.

Take, for example, the situation of Kazumi, the violent biker. How is it even remotely believable that he stoically walks to his death preaching "some crimes are paid for with more than hard time"? Is he that repentant of his crime that he sentences himself to death? If so, where in the world did we see any remorse from him for his previous lifestyle. Wasn't he the one who just a few scenes prior punched the daylights out of the guy at the restaurant? In essence, this seemed to be merely a scenario to quickly knock off another of the characters in a blood-splattering way.

Similarly, while I can to some degree imagine Torakichi's motivation for running with self-abandon into the arms of 100 policeman in an attempt to save (?) Michiru, this exercise requires purely imagination and not an ounce of reasonability or plausibility. I cannot help but ask myself whether this sudden moment of seeming selflessness through love of his new son-figure could or even should be the culmination of the Torakichi character. I personally cannot see how it makes sense or why this should even be considered a resolution. Simply causing a character to make a 180 degree turn in personality does not constitute profundity or meaning.

Thus put together, I found Toyoda's 9 Souls to be a thoroughly compelling and entertaining vehicle for a message consisting almost solely of less-than-plausible scenarios sewn together solely for the purpose of depicting the (similar) demise of the nine characters within the final third of the film. After about the third "resolution" I felt the repetition and could basically guess the outcome of the remaining scenarios (and I was right). Unfortunately, as soon as I recognized this pattern, the impact of the story changed drastically as its formulaic approach seemed less and less plausible. (So I hope you didn't mistakenly read this prior to watching the film!)

Keimusha no Naka, on the other hand, though much less dramatically and flash packaged, far more effectively carried through on the existential message, albeit in traditional vocabulary.

In its most basic form, nihilism does suggest only hopelessness or the view that at best, hope is placed only in elusive and fleeting things. And this basic form of nihilism seems to be as far as 9 Souls can take us, only after, of course, spending two thirds of the film suggesting these characters are anything but nihilistic. But Toyoda is truly only toying with this philosophy since each of his characters, in the end, are merely deprived of something they love. This is by far the most basic notion of nihilism, dealt out at the conclusion of the film like a mere trump card.

Someday this formulaically convenient form of nihilism will give way to a far more mature exploration of the philosophy wherein characters' resolution is attempted through more than a mere denial of what the audience is told only scenes prior the characters want.

There. I said it. :P

Version reviewed: Region 0 DVD (includes English subtitles)

cultural interest violence sex strangeness
The latest film by director Toyoda who is on a roll with interesting and entertaining forays into nihilism and hopelessness. Here most of the violence is equated with gushes of bright red blood staining white jump suits or splashed by slamming bricks. Nope, though we do get a strip tease. (and I do mean tease) Comedic and action-packed convict road-trip tale wherein our group is consumed one by one via Toyoda's formulaic (baby) nihilism.

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