|Plot Outline: We begin with a disturbed young man, Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda) who has spent many of his last few years in complete isolation. After overhearing his father and brother going through an argument, he goes off the deep end and brutally murders his only living parent. He soon arrives in a prison cell along with nine other inmates, but one of which seems to be off his meds, because after sharing a secret about a treasure he hid at a school – the man goes berserk and is sent to another cell. Just moments later one of the convicts (who happens to be a master of escape) discovers an exit, and sets the remaining nine prisoners free. Together they all set out to find the treasure mentioned in earlier on, and along the way we are guided through their highs and lows.|
9 Souls takes a cue from Battle Royale (though not in a direct reference, nor even a strong comparison) in the fact that the cast of characters is quite large and as mentioned this may draw out some confusion. There are nine convicts, and at least a few Yakuza along the way who make more than a couple of appearances, so balancing this whole cadre of beings was already an ambitious step in the first place (though not a huge move when compared to the fairly large Blue Spring), but building an emotional attachment for the audience with nearly every one of them definitely seems like a task few could muster themselves past. Something that Toyoda did, that I feel most directors would not have, is in the fact that he doesn’t shy away from showing the audience that despite their being human the majority of these criminals have committed crimes that are blatantly inhumane. Along the way the audience learns that most have repented their crimes, or at the least the situation wasn’t as cold as they would be lead to believe, but Toyoda very well could have taken the naive route and had them all play embezzlers or crooked Yakuza thieves – instead of murderers. There is the obvious need to make the characters more identifiable, yes, but a lot of this is brought about in the third act of the film anyway and the audience already has an emotional relationship with these men regardless. Toyoda may not break new ground completely with these little nuances, but it’s obvious he was starting from a place of originality rather than just trying to reproduce formula – which is always a great place to be. In my opinion, sometimes it only takes a thin layer of humanity to really perfect any character. This is something I loved about the original Battle Royale, but some people genuinely detested (often criticized for having too many characters and lacking the time to give each depth). I think Toyoda not only creates a whole list of characters who have their own unique qualities, but he gives them all motivation and independent attitudes. Toyoda crafts a list of characters as a master at work on the canvas, and never seems to fail with me as a viewer. There are moments of some inconsistency in the film I thought my first time through, but on re-thinking the situations, it is just so chock full of information throughout that it’s nearly hard to swallow in one viewing. It isn’t necessarily the type of film where you have to cling on to every bit of information given, but an attentive eye sure doesn’t hurt a thing. Although the pace is assuredly slow, the speed at which the audience is taken on this journey throughout the film is nearly hypnotizing. From one location to the next, the film continually bashes you over the head with a pace that seems other-worldly. It’s hard to describe, but once and if the film hooks you, sitting through the full two hours in one go becomes a pleasure.
9 Souls is absolutely the most visual film Toyoda has directed for the moment, and not that his previous films were lacking in that area, 9 Souls is just a tour de-force from beginning to end. The framing and placement of the camera throughout the picture is always clever no matter how ordinary the scene may be. I am reminded of a sequence where the camera is positioned on the outside of the bus our characters ride around in, as a couple of characters talk and give some expositional dialogue in the front seat, as the scene goes on (in what I remember to be quite the long take) we watch as a character exits the back of the bus and steps outside and exits to the left of the camera. There is a subtle movement as the camera adjusts its self on the hood of the vehicle and we see that the other character is actually urinating in the background. It adds a very humorous tone to what could have been a somewhat boring scene, and the fluid camera movement and awkward angle makes such a bizarre moment move by with angelic grace. That isn’t even mentioning the grand number of long takes that seem to get more and more complex along the way. There’s another moment where a woman grows angry with her husband over the fact that the convicts have taken advantage of their hospitality and begin acting rude inside of their house, the scene follows the woman from inside as her husband tries to calm her down until she walks into the kitchen where we see a man walk outside and (once again) begins urinating (it isn’t a theme or anything in the movie, trust me) and as she walks out the door still confronting her husband, she walks away, walks back and notices the man, grunts and walks away. The scene isn’t done though, the camera continues positioning its self so we can see both the backside of this stranger urinating on her property, and her as she walks away. The scene concludes once the man ‘finishes’. The film delves into the absurd at a moment’s notice but continually brings the audience back around, and as the comedy lightens up during the latter part of the film, the drama moves in without things growing stilted in the least. It is genuinely touching and hilarious in the same breath. The constant moving visuals are coupled with Toshiaki Toyoda’s complete dominance over the art of ‘cool’. The whole film is just ‘cool’ from the very start, beginning (after a few minutes of story, of course) with what appears to be a staple of Toyoda’s films, characters walking towards the camera while the hippest rock music you’ve ever heard blares over the soundtrack. Now, if you’ve never seen any of his films, you probably think that is old news and everyone and their mother has had a shot like that – but trust me, nobody does it better than Toyoda. Rather than having a rock band on the soundtrack though, with lyrical work accompanying as in Blue Spring, he returned to a full rock instrumental soundtrack as he did with Pornostar. Although I doubt there could ever be an instrumental that could create anything as powerful as the conclusion to Blue Spring (with Thee Michelle Gun Elephant’s song “Drop” magnifying the excitement), even so the musical work in 9 Souls is just as breathtaking in some ways. Especially during the concluding minutes, just the theme song adds so much to the fulfillment of the movie. Without something as catchy and beautiful I doubt things could have worked half as well. Toshiaki Toyoda has become the king of rock & roll cinema, without a doubt. All of this, and I haven’t even went into the performances, but to make it short – this film nearly brought tears to my eyes during the final minutes. I’m not ashamed to admit it, that’s how much I had grown attached to these characters, and a good script helps but the actors are the main attractions for the audience. Much of the cast are made up of regulars in Toyoda’s films, including the stars of his previous two films, Ryuhei Matsuda (Blue Spring) and Kôji Chihara (Pornostar), both of who actually share one poignant scene together on a bicycle that I felt particularly fond of as I am a fan of his other films, and seeing the two somewhat tied together is just a beautiful thing to witness. Although I wish I could, the cast is just too huge to go over individually, but each performance in my eyes is played to the hilt. With humor and a knowledge of how much drama is necessary. In short, pitch perfect!
What else can I say, 9 Souls is a beautiful follow-up to Blue Spring. I doubt it can reach those peaks, and it does have it’s moments of confusion throughout, but I can’t help but view the film as a step up in many ways and another dimension in a growing director. It’s a beautiful work that absolutely should not be missed by fans of Japanese cinema, and especially not by fans of the director. I give the film a five, but minus the Captain Stubbing award. Not something I do regularly, but as much as I feel the film is deserving of that five, I don’t know if it’s an absolute classic in that it will go down as Toyoda’s greatest film, so I reserve the award for the time being. Still, the work Toshiakai Toyoda is creating should not be passed up by any true lover of cinema, much less anyone who likes really ‘cool’ movies.