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I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The director, Toshiaki Toyoda, was responsible for the good-to-excellent Blue Spring, which started off with a potentially stereotypical situation (unruly youth gangs in a high school) and ended with such a burst of real emotion that the film popped loose of its clichéd roots. 9 Souls is even better. This time around, Toyoda has a larger budget and a more complex cast of characters at his disposal, and he’s put together a movie that stands as being one of the best Japanese films of the last few years.
Some time ago, Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda, also of Spring) stabbed his father to death, and has since been sent to prison. He shares the cell with eight others: Torakichi (Japanese acting legend Yoshio Harada), who unrepentantly murdered his own son; Fujio (Itsuji Itao), a sometime porn king; Shishido (Onimaru), a former street punk gone sour; Kiyoshi (Kee), a pimp; Shiratori (Mame Yamada, again of Spring), a dwarf doctor who assisted suicides; loose-cannon Ushiyama (Genta Dairaku); Inui (Takuji Suzuki), a bomb-wielding nutcase prone to epileptic fits; and Kazuma (Koji Chihara), a biker-gang leader who stabbed four of his own men. We get to know them all over time, and while the movie provides us with splashy title cards for each one, they’re not required: we come to know them so well through the accumulation of little details that by the end of the movie we feel like we’ve always known them.
One afternoon a tenth prisoner is thrown into the cell, a forger-cum-lunatic who flips out on them and gets carted off to solitary, but not before letting slide about a stash of counterfeit bills he socked away in a time capsule buried on a schoolyard. Shiratori is something of an escape artist, and after they discover a mouse hole in their cell, they manage to break out and go running across the countryside in their prison jumpsuits like lovers in a slow-motion romantic interlude. They hijack a van (barely big enough for the bunch of them), rob several convenience stores, steal loose change out from under vending machines, and head for the buried treasure.
The “buried treasure” turns out to be a dud, so they fall back on their other plan: Meet up with the people they know in the outside world and see if they can reconnect with any of them. Torakichi tries this with a former criminal friend of his who’s gone straight and married a Filipino woman, but it turns into a huge mess: they smoke all his cigarettes, empty his larder, and try to teach their kid to pee standing up. The others have people also waiting for them, former girlfriends or family, but they’re all too conscious of how being branded a criminal makes it impossible to fit back in.
Back in the van, they squabble, one-up and spar futilely with each other, play stupid games, while away the time on the road with daydreaming. They may not like each other much, but they give each other some semblance of belonging. The most caregiving of the bunch, the doctor Shiratori, even gave up one of his kidneys so that a lovely young woman could live—and when he runs into her again, in a neon-lit roadside strip joint, he elects to stay with her, inspiring a strange bitterness on the part of his comrades: Even if they didn’t like him much, they still hate to see him go.
As each of them try to fit back into the world and mostly fail at it, the movie’s more serious side comes to the surface. What they fear most is not being recaptured or even killed, but being rejected. That they are now “criminals” is bad enough, but that they cannot find anyone to see them outside of that is even worse. One of the best arcs in the movie involves one of the nine willfully leaving behind the others to work in a little roadside restaurant. At first we think that’s the end of his story, but later in the film, we return to him just as his terrified employers have figured out who he is. The way the scene plays out beautifully merges both humor and tragedy.
Then there is Michiru, the loner of the bunch, who of all of them connects only with Torakichi. The irony’s clear: the man who murdered his son and the man who murdered his father see something in each other, even if it’s just something to despise. Michiru, too, craves acceptance, and upon returning to Tokyo tracks down his brother (still running a sleazy loan-sharking operation). He realizes only too late that even his brother, like most people, sees Michiru as a problem rather than a human being. Torakichi manages to arrive just in time to see his estranged daughter married, and learn that his estrangement from her isn’t simply a matter of him being a criminal.
The final scenes of the film play out with the same sadness and yearning that ended Blue Spring as well, and are what elevate the movie all the way into real tragedy—and also the same sort of leaps of surreal fantasy that characterize the best of Takashi Miike’s films. Given how Toyoda has gone from good to great in the course of only a couple of movies, whatever he does next should be nothing short of fascinating.
Previous: Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
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