[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]
It's always interesting to watch two or three movies by a filmmaker whose work you've never seen. You begin to understand the creator's aesthetic, his or her concerns, and how these concerns manifest themselves in the work. You also begin to develop a newfound enjoyment of the previous work in light of more recent work and vice versa -- it's like tuning into someone's wavelength, and this goes for all mediums. You learn how to read the work by that person.
In this case, I'm talking about Toshiaki Toyoda. I previously reviewed his film Monsters Club and found it good but maybe lacking something extra. After 9 Souls, I realize that the thing I wanted from Monsters Club could be found in the refinement of Toyoda's style and his method rather than any greater leap in the ideas expressed. So in that way, 9 Souls made me like Monsters Club more.
But as for 9 Souls on its own, I'd say it's a much better starting point for newcomers to Toyoda.
9 Souls (Nain Souruzu | ナイン・ソウルズ)
Director: Toshiaki Toyoda
Originally released in 2003, 9 Souls was Toyoda's follow-up to his acclaimed 2001 film Blue Spring (which I have yet to see). Watching the movie, it feels almost like an argument against strict genre boundaries. In the sequence before the title screen, we see an apocalyptic vision of Tokyo slowly being leveled into dirt accompanied by the impending churn of a post-rock song. There's a murder. Then there's time in prison with other inmates, a zany tantrum, and an exuberant escape capped with a rushing instrumental and an introduction to the film's characters. It's depression, it's violence, it's comedy, it's joy, and though it's not of one genre, it's all of a coherent piece. And then, up on the screen, finally: 9 Souls.
It's that odd and sometimes breathless way that 9 Souls has of captivating its audience as these shifts in tone occur, and they occur quite often. It's a prison movie and a road movie full of slapstick and pathos. Tone shifts because that's the story of these lives. And in the end, who cares about strict genre boundaries? There are times when genre labels should be discounted entirely since the work in question is too complicated for simple confinement. 9 Souls busts out of this genre joint.
The nine inmates who break out of jail have different reasons for being there. There's the gruff ring leader who killed his own son (the late Yoshio Harada), the brooding young man who killed his father (Ryuhei Matsuda), a bumbling oaf like a Japanese Curly (I believe it's Genta Dairaku), and a master midget escapist (Mame Yamada). They band together in a stolen RV -- repainted, decorated, christened after sainted lady parts -- in search of a hidden stash. It's money that may give them a ticket to living free while on the lam.
What's maybe most remarkable about 9 Souls is the way that each character's hopes and dreams get a chance to be depicted on screen. Each of them has distinct personalities as well, so none of the inmates gets lost in the ensemble. Some are more memorable than others, obviously. The midget convict played by Yamada has a certain wizened feel about him. You understand there's more to him than just being a guy on the run. Harada's gruffness suggests something sternly paternal regarding his crew. There are squabbles between them all, which is to be expected when you cram a bunch of people in a smelly RV, but under all that pettiness is a mutual concern.
The first half of the film is generally the funny half, where all those hopes of freedom seem certain. Befitting the tone, we get unexpected reunions which lead to lots of awkward situational comedy, and we also get lots of playful ribbing and pranking on each other. None of the cons are bad people per se. They may be better viewed as fuck-ups looking for a second chance from anyone and from anywhere.
But that opening shot of the rotting Japan suggests the tone of the second half the film: hopelessness. Nothing goes quite as planned for the crew. Dreams rarely work out the way you want them, and perhaps one of the hard lessons learned in 9 Souls is defeatist: once a fuck-up, always a fuck-up. That's expressed in one gut-wrenching scene where Dairaku's character takes out his frustrations on himself. It's one of those moments that starts out funny because it's the stuff of slapstick, but as the scene continues, the comedy dwindles and we're left with a visceral expression of self-loathing.
There's a line from Neil Gaiman's Sandman that said if you keep a story going long enough it will always end in death. In 9 Souls, if you tell a joke long enough, it'll wind up being sad. (Think the Bee Gees tune "I Started a Joke.") Both are about extending the story past the punchline or the happy ending, which just shows how grueling and unfortunate life can be. At times I wondered if fate was involved for our hapless inmates, or if they would always be in these unfortunate personal prisons they made themselves. They escaped, but maybe they're worse off for it.
But to that idea of going beyond the happy ending or a punchline, if you linger on a silly image long enough, it becomes a thing of beauty. The joke becomes poetry. By that I don't mean the early bestiality gag or the goofy disguises our inmates start to wear, but the scene with Dairaku and his expression of rage. Or there's a scene with Yamada which is quietly funny at first, but because of Toyoda's lingering camera it becomes a potent image of frailty and intimacy -- if you make a quip and sustain it, maybe it becomes an expression of love.
The whole film is based on this blend of high and low, hope and hopelessness, comedy and tragedy, and it winds up being this unpredictable and fascinating story of lost souls. I admit I sort of have issues with how 9 Souls ends -- a matter of personal taste regarding the literalization of a metaphor -- but that doesn't detract for what the end means to those involved. Maybe there's the possibility that if you keep telling a sad story long enough, you'll wind up at those happy endings and punchlines again. Sure, it's all bound to curve down again like a miserable sine wave, but you've got hold out hope for something, even if it's fleeting and impossible. We're all fuck-ups, but we're all in this together.
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