Hey, you've got your comedy in my drama! No, you've got your drama in my comedy! Judge Joel Pearce says—it's two great tastes that taste great together! (Only he says it in Japanese.)
"Protected by the system in this bloated world, they live oblivious. The voice of truth never penetrates, and they just keep laughing." -Kaneko
The current Japanese cult cinema scene is pretty much dominated by a few names, for example Takashi Miike and Ryuhei Kitamura. After seeing Blue Spring and now 9 Souls, I think that Toshiaki Toyoda belongs near the top of that list as well. He has an uncanny eye for aesthetics, and an insightful and unsettling storytelling style. This is a very mature film, which starts out like a prison break comedy then turns into something entirely different. ArtsmagicDVD has delivered yet another great Japanese film in an excellent DVD package.
Facts of the Case
Ten criminals are sharing a jail cell when a legendary counterfeiter breaks down, mentioning a hidden stash of cash before being dragged off by the guards. The other nine, guided by escape artist Shiartori (Mami Yamada, Blue Spring) and led by a murderer named Torakichi (Yoshio Harada, Azumi), escape and travel together to find the money. What should be a simple journey from point A to point B is complicated by the general zaniness of the various convicts, as well as the presence of a young man named Kaneko (Ryuhei Matsuda, Gohatto), who murdered his own father in cold blood.
9 Souls opens with a brief scene showing Kaneko's home life. It quickly shifts to his arrival in the already crammed prison cell. By the ten minute mark, the nine have already escaped and the adventure has begun. The first half of this adventure is largely comedic, albeit with a sinister twist. The group members make a mess wherever they go, and each of their idiosyncrasies starts to show through. We realize that they will be lucky to just reach the hidden treasure, let alone distribute it and use it to follow their dreams. At times, the film has a tone similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou? They are on what is modeled as an epic quest, even though they are not heroes and the challenges they face are more bizarre than threatening.
Then, at the halfway mark of 9 Souls, Toshiaki Toyoda reaches what ought to be the end of the film. For a few minutes, it feels as though he has lost his way, and that the plot is running away from him. Then the larger picture emerges, showing that this is not simply a prison break film. The humor of the first half suddenly seems less funny, and their wishes for freedom suddenly get much farther away, rather than becoming reality. Every one of these criminals has some kind of plan for starting a better, proper life in society, but there are several things blocking their way. For one thing, few of the characters are willing to actually change in order to make a better life. Even those that are willing to change can't seem to understand that society will never respect their good wishes. Their unrealistic quest for the money has become a more serious quest for meaning and belonging, but it is just as futile.
All of the performances are stellar. The cast is equally capable of handling the off-the-wall humor of the first half and the deeply felt drama in the second half. Special attention needs to be given to Toyoda regular Mami Yamada, whose sensitive and perfectly timed performance carries the first half of the film. If it weren't for his presence, I'm not sure the transition would have worked. Recognition needs to go to the rest of the cast as well, though. Ryuhei Matsuda is completely unpredictable as Kaneko. Even though he says almost nothing through the film, his performance is powerful and moving. I expect that we will see great things from him in the future.
Toyoda already shows the skills of a very experienced director. His cinematography is full of flair and style, but it never feels like he is using that style to cover up weaknesses in the content. The characters and script always come first, strengthened by his keen visual styling. His use of on- and off-screen violence is some of the most remarkable I have witnessed. Although this is not an especially violent or gory film, the few moments of action are as disturbing as anything I have ever seen. As well, he has a great ear for music and when to use it. Without the skills that he adds to this production, I am not sure that it would have worked. With them taken into consideration, it's a film that Asian film fans won't want to miss.
The disc represents another great effort on the part of ArtsmagicDVD. The video transfer is clean and sharp, with virtually no print flaws. It's a visually dark film, and the level of detail in the dark scenes is impressive. The colors are accurate and clean, with an intentional desaturation that represents the society well. The sound transfer isn't quite as good. It's a full 5.1 track, but it feels mostly like the front sound stage is just echoed in the rears. The dialogue is always clear and the music has plenty of punch, so it's not that big of a deal.
There are also several extras on the disc. There's a commentary with Tom Mes, who is always interesting and who has a number of excellent insights into Japanese culture. He has obviously planned ahead for the commentary, and rarely goes off topic. There are also two interviews with Toyoda, which are worth checking out as well. In them, we get to learn how the concept for 9 Souls came about. There is also some promotional material on the disc, but unlike some of the other discs from the studio, this artwork hasn't been translated.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's somewhat hard to keep the characters straight at first. The introductions go by very quickly, and it's not until quite a bit later that we learn much about them. I think it's handled just about as well as anyone has for such a large ensemble film, with the possible exception of Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven, but it's still frustrating for a while at the beginning. That's really my only squabble with the film, but I thought I should put something in this section of the review.
This is an exciting, fun, unique and ultimately moving film that every Asian film fan should go and hunt down. In a genre and industry that seems to be more style than substance, Toyoda has something worthwhile to bring to the table, and does it in a slick and entertaining way. Check it out.
Only the characters in 9 Souls are guilty. Since they already got what they deserve, no further charges will be laid. Court Dismissed.
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