by Del Harvey
This DVD is available for purchase at ArtsMagicDVD.com.
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Japanese director Toshiaki Toyoda’s works have been focused, primarily, upon his country’s disaffected youth in films like 1998’s Pornostar and 2002’s Blue Spring. Touching upon timely and critical issues pertinent especially to youth, and speaking to that group across many cultures, Toyoda’s works have been out of the mainstream for the most part. But that does not mean they have been anything less than vital or original. But with the aging of a youthful market comes the necessity to alter focus, to keep up with your supporters while trying to stay ahead of the crowd. Thus it seems logical that his next film would embrace a group of individuals who are, in many ways, disaffected youth who have not quite grown into their own aging skins. In so doing, Toyoda has shown maturity and confidence, and has crafted a film of both insight, drama, character and contemplation.
The nine souls as described in the title are escaped convicts, all male, struggling to survive in an environment that has left them behind. They vary greatly in age, shape, and size, intellect, and maturity. Their escape from prison is somewhat humorous and, like everything they do, happenstance. One afternoon they spot a mouse streak along the edge of the wall before darting down a small hole in the floor. All of the men rise up and dash to the previously unnoticed spot, then frantically start tearing up floorboards. Cut to the next scene, a muddy prison yard and a manhole cover, which is thrust upwards and away as, one-by-one, the nine escape. As they run we are introduced to them one at a time. There is Torakichi (Harada), the eldest and the group’s natural leader, who killed his own son; Kazuma (Chihara), a former biker who stabbed four of his own gang; Inui (Suzuki), an epileptic mad bomber; the diminutive doctor Shiratori (Yamada), who was jailed for aiding suicide; the reclusive Michiru (Matsuda), a young man who murdered his own father; the temperamental Ushiyama (Dairaku); former chinpira Shishido (Onimaru); pimp Kiyoshi (Kee) and modest porn entrepreneur Fujio (Itao). One thing they all have in common: they all have unfinished business to take care of and family members or a loved one to confess to.
They confiscate a van and set off to find a Holy Grail—an elementary school at the foot of Mount Fuji, where their cellmate, soul number ten who was taken to solitary confinement just before they escaped, supposedly hid an unbelievably huge stash of counterfeit yen. Finally arriving at the school they find there is no cash. Climbing back into the van, they travel towards the suburbs and the city, each parting company one by one to attempt to salvage what is left of their lives.
Nine Souls hovers somewhere between action/adventure and dark, absurdist comedy. Never easy to do (Kubrick was one of the rare masters), Toyoda was able to pull it off, in large part thanks to placing his dysfunctional characters in unreal situations, and by keeping them distanced and removed from reality. The result is part slapstick, part poignant, and all circus scenes that invest us even more into these odd character’s lives.
There is morality here, and pathos, and bizarre, illogical comedy. And it all works by Toyoda’s keeping just enough humanity and self-realization in his characters and thus in his story. Nine Souls is offbeat, erratic entertainment.
Del Harvey is a writer and screenwriting teacher living in Chicago.
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