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There aren’t many entertaining movies that provoke thought these days, nor are there many thoughtful movies that create entertainment. Cinemas are inhabited by Hollywood made schlock entertainment and imported or independent highbrow squirm fests. There isn’t anything wrong with fast paced, intellectually void action flicks, nor is there anything wrong with slow moving, thought provoking, subtitled films - but sometimes we all could use a little something in between. Sometimes you feel like French toast, sometimes you feel like a Pop Tart, but what about those days you crave a bagel with cream cheese? Thank God for the Japanese. The land of the rising sun has become a haven for starving film lovers in the last decade, thanks to prolific young filmmakers who aren’t afraid to try something different. Several of the newer generation Japanese films take classic film conventions and twist them into new shapes, making the familiar unfamiliar. For those of us looking for that bagel with cream cheese, we need look no further, entertaining films that make us think are the order of the day out of Japan. Toshiaki Toyoda’s 9 Souls continues this new tradition in filmmaking, taking a familiar subject and moulding it into something new.

9 Souls find a mouse hole.
A young shut-in murders his overbearing father and is subsequently sent to jail. He’s thrown in a crowded cell with nine other inmates. One night, soon after his arrival, there is a prison break, and he escapes with eight others. These are the nine souls of the title. They emerge from a flooded sewer plate and run into the night in slow motion as they are introduced to the audience through still frames and massive, screen filling text. Each of them is named and their various reasons for imprisonment revealed. These nine men are introduced to the audience through their names and crimes alone, making pity and respect immediately difficult. Their crimes vary from the violent (son killer, mad bomber, Yakuza gangster), to the vague (‘general loose cannon’). On the road the fugitives find a van, just big enough to hold them all, tie the owner to a tree, and take it for a ride. All they have to do now is elude the law, learn to trust each other, find a hidden treasure (the life’s work of the tenth inmate, who did not escape), and finish their varied unfinished business. Does any of this sound familiar?

It is all rather familiar on the surface, escaped convicts on a cross-country run and crime spree, but it’s beneath the surface where 9 Souls shines. What starts off as a wacky comedy (several of the nine immediately try to ravage a nearby flock of sheep when their getaway van crashes into a farmer’s fence) slowly morphs into a melancholy morality play. The fact that these men are looking for a buried treasure isn’t really important in the grand scheme of the film (the treasure itself is the most obvious and heavy-handed metaphor in the whole film), nor is the fact that they are fugitives. Redemption is the theme here. 9 Souls could have been a period piece with nine lost Ronin, or a children’s fantasy featuring nine adorably animated animals, and still maintained it’s general theme. The title is 9 Souls after all, not ‘9 Convicts’, or ‘9 Fugitives’.

9 Souls does not shy away from escape genre conventions and even seems to embrace them at times. The first place the nine stop for the night is an ex-prisoner’s house, who’s still on parole and newly married, leading to scenes of the wife freaking out, cursing her husband in her Philippine tongue, and storming out, suitcases packed and in hand (“Son, time to find a new Mommy.”). The films sense of humour thrives as it plays with the conventions. This is followed closely by scenes of close calls with police officers, the nine disguised in bad drag and their confrontations with the young men who tease them for dressing as women. What at first seems like lazy writing is almost always turned on its head and pushed in a direction outside of the norm, whether that be towards the absurd or the realistic (usually the opposite direction your average film would go). Where as your average prison escape comedy would feature an ex-inmate beating up his teaser, 9 Souls has the teaser casually beaten, seemingly to death as his friends look on. Occasionally there is a really coincidental series of events that conveniently push the narrative forward, like a strip club appearing in the middle of nowhere or a person from the past walking into a restroom at a perfectly opportune moment, but these events feel so surreal and the movie so dream like that it works. It’s as if God himself is arranging these dominoes, making sure everything happens at the right time so the right lessons are learned.

9 Souls find a van.
Each of these men has a mission, a reason why they had to escape, and fate sees to it that they complete their tasks. Slowly, members break apart from the group as they come across the people they’ve wronged, loved, owe money to, etc. However, almost all of these redemptive attempts fail, and the resulting punishments are wrenching to watch. Movie violence is usually ineffective or even fun, but here it’s played as real life violence, ugly and depressing. The movie’s message becomes a little blurred during these bloody moments, and one wonders whether redemption is even possible in this specific world. The only man who gets away clean is the one with a truly clean conscience, but he’s also the first to leave, so you tend to forget about his victory until the end of the film when we see the nine together again. One complaint, though, is that I could see where almost all of these stories were going before they got there, but this might go back the theme of the preordained fate.

The humour in the film’s first two thirds plays very well against the drama. There is a hilarious sequence where the fugitives eat in a public restaurant, and watch a sensationalized local newscast on themselves (the report states that the father killer ate the remains), while wearing horrible disguises. They eye each other with each name and crime mentioned. There are running gags involving one character being left behind at almost every stop and chasing the get-away van into the horizon, one character constantly calling his ex for phone sex (she never answers), and one character being particularly strong. These funny moments are too, often twisted and lead to some kind of tragedy or bitter irony. And there is a lot of urinating in this movie, a theme that’s meaning (if there is one, maybe it’s an act of purging?) I have not yet figured out. Whether or not all the things I found funny were meant to be taken as such is definitely up for debate, but it doesn’t change how hard I laughed at them.

There is a definite artistic flare displayed here. I have not seen any of director Toshiaki Toyoda’s other films, but I am intrigued by his visual sense. As stated before, there is a dream like quality to the film, and in parts it’s very relaxing, almost hypnotizing in its calmness. This calmness makes the violence even more alarming in comparison. The musical score, a kind of mix of Elliot Smith and various Brit-Pop groups, works so well that I find myself wondering about the availability of the soundtrack. The mix of image and sound evokes a Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums) feel, as well as the off-kilter humour, and the multi-character study defiantly earns comparisons to Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia). Toyoda is not afraid to be graceful with the camera either, something I’ve missed in a lot of recent Japanese cinema. I’m not talking jump cuts and whip-pans here, but light steady-cam shots that would make Stanley Kubrick proud. And what would a Japanese based, artistically rendered morality play be without the obvious comparisons to the great ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano. I think that Toyoda finds himself in good company, and have a feeling that his craft will become even more finely tuned as he matures as a filmmaker.

9 Souls dress in drag.
There were a lot of things going on in this movie that I didn’t totally understand with my first viewing. I find a lot of bad film criticism involves the critic not getting the material, and then blaming the material for crimes it has not committed. I’m not afraid to admit that some of this was over my head, like the breathtaking opening that I haven’t figured out the significance of (perhaps loneliness or nihilism). I plan on watching the film again after I’ve let things settle in my mind a bit. The layered meaning to the images and narrative is all part of what amounts to a very brave movie. The bravest move of all is the assertion that these criminals are human beings first. They do share the average Hollywood anti-hero’s conventional morals, but they also display their lack there of in a more realistic way when needed. These characters are realistic criminals, and some of them are brutal murderers, but Toyoda makes sure they never become monsters, even if we don’t like their actions as viewers. Several popular Hollywood films will sympathize with their murderers, but they rarely go as far as to truly humanize them. Without glorifying their actions, 9 Souls shows us that these men are a lot like the rest of us, it’s just that when they have a bad day someone ends up dead.

9 Souls is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image is at times dark and grainy, but never unwatchable. I’m pretty sure that, based on the material presented, this is the way the movie was filmed. It appears that the DP used a lot of source light, so the outdoor images tend to be either harshly bright or dark. This adds to the grit of the movie, but probably made its digital transferring difficult. There is hardly any sign of pixilation or image compression. Colours are pretty darn sharp, and quite bright. The strip club glows nicely in all its bright pink glory, as it sits surrealistically on a drab, brown hill.  The darker and less colourful scenes also maintain a certain degree of crispness. Given this was a newer film I’d expect it to look good, but I’ve noticed a lot of trouble with image integrity in Japanese films lately especially darker ones, so it’s nice to see a satisfying transfer for a change. There are a few companies out there that might want to take notice (I’m not naming names) before they release another washed out transfer of a beautiful Japanese movie.

9 Souls watch a show.
Artsmagic has given us a fine 5.1 Japanese surround mix. This isn’t an action movie, so the surround speakers aren’t exactly over-active. There is the occasional ambiance of the great outdoors, birds chirping, the wind, stuff like that. The dialogue is occasionally a little on the soft side, especially when characters are speaking off screen, but I suppose I was reading the subtitles the whole time, so this never posed any real problems for me. The music comes through loud and clear, even at its more sombre moments, and I am most thankful for that.

The extras on the disc are a little on the sparse side. There is a nice theatrical trailer here, which captures the feeling of the film, but which I wouldn’t recommend watching before the film because it gives too much away. There are some rather thorough filmographies of every major cast member and the director. Just like every good Japanese film I’ve seen in the last two years, at least one of these guys was featured in Ichi the Killer. There are two director interviews, in Japanese with English subtitles. Toyoda seems to be pretty uncomfortable and for some of the questions the interviewer has to really ‘pull teeth’ to get some of the answers out of him, but he never the less comes across as a very intelligent man, who’s confident in his art without seeming conceded. Also included is a ‘Promo Materials’ gallery that consists of only two images, a movie poster and a small exert from the original press packet.

Unfortunately, the main special feature on the disc did not work correctly. Before I even watched the film, Artmagic sent word that there was an audio problem with the Tom Mes commentary track. Tom Mes is a very intelligent man who has quite a passion for Japanese cinema, and who seems to do a commentary track for every Artsmagic release. The audio problem in question was a loss of entire sections of audio, so a thorough review of the commentary was pretty difficult. From what I listened to, Mes has a colossal knowledge base pertaining to not only 9 Souls but to every film Toyoda has made, and their significance to Japanese culture. A lot of the cultural misunderstandings a non-Japanese viewer may have are thoughtfully explained. My only complaints is that he’s so soft spoken that it verges on mumbling at times, and that a little of the films unexplained magic is lost when Mes explains some of the directors intentions. Artsmagic stated that the audio problems would be fixed before the general release in January.

I’d wanted to complain about the lack of extras on the disc, because I really like extras, but was unable to come up with any good reasons for more of them. This is one of those movies I enjoyed watching, but didn’t find myself wondering about the production of. I don’t think I’d really want to sit though a lengthy making of 9 Souls, nor would I really care to hear exactly what the director meant to convey. I kind of like the ambiguity of the newer films coming out of Japan these days. I don’t want to know exactly what happens to each character after we leave them, just as much as I don’t want someone to tell me exactly what happens at the end of any of Takashi Miike’s more off-kilter flicks.

9 Souls in the end.
Saying 9 Souls was one of the better movies I’ve seen this year isn’t really saying much, asthis year was pretty dismal, but I think that the statement would pertain to most years, even good ones. The direction and acting are solid, and the story, though slightly predictable, is presented in an intriguing way. There are no easy answers here, and that’s the film’s strongest suit. I’d recommend it to fans of Japanese cinema, and those jaded by the state of popular film. I’m sure it won’t be a favourite with everyone, but it’s still worth a look, just be prepared for some uncomfortable moments.