9 Souls (2003) – By Duane L. Martin

Toshiyaki Toyoda is a name you probably haven’t heard too much of in the realm of Japanese cinema. He’s only directed four films, which doesn’t seem like much when you compare it to the scope of work done by Takashi Miike and others like him, yet Toshiyaki Toyoda has a gift; not only as a director, but as a writer too. He wrote and directed 9 Souls, and the end result was a film that is just in every sense of the word, incredible.

The story is about ten prisoners. Each has their own stories and their own crimes, and yet each is actually someone you can care about. The title 9 Souls refers to the fact that nine of the tem prisoners escaped the night after the tenth one went nuts. He was a counterfeiter, and he told them about a box he buried in a time capsule at the Mt. Fuji Elementary School. So when the prisoners made their escape, they banded together and went on a quest to find what they thought was millions of yen in buried counterfeit currency. The school was around 135 miles away, so they hitched a ride with a guy by pretending to be practicing martial arts students. The ride didn’t last long before they made the guy pull over, tied him to a tree, unloaded his truck so they’d have more room to ride in the back, and took off, leaving him tied there. This began a very humorous series of events, which even included a hilarious scene where the group came upon some sheep that looked like they wanted to party…if you know what I mean.

There’s actually quite a bit of humor up to the point where they finally reach the time capsule. They dig up the box, but there’s nothing in it except a plastic key and a cryptic note. Despondent and wanted, with their faces on every newspaper and television screen, some of the group splits off and goes their own way while the others stick together. It’s at this point that the film takes a darker turn. Some of the group tries to go off and resume their normal lives, while others are kind of at a loss as to what they’re going to do. Unfortunately, by the end of the film, things don’t work out for most of them, and many of them end up dead.

It’s hard enough to write a character in a film that the viewers will actually care about, but to take on the immense task of trying to write nine of those kinds of characters is simply beyond the skill of most writers. Fortunately, it was not beyond the talents of Toshiyaki, and despite the criminal pasts of the central group of people in this film, they were all people that you actually felt for. You really find yourself pulling for them; wanting them to have the better lives that they’ve dreamed of having. Unfortunately, it’s not meant to be, and when things take a dark turn for the characters, you’ll find yourself feeling genuinely sorry for them.

I found myself as I watched this film, feeling an almost subconscious comparison with Miike’s Bird People in China. Both movies in fact had similar themes. A group of men on a quest to find something, but in the end all they really end up wanting is to live a simpler life and to be happy. I think the thing that drove that comparison the most was the emotional response that both films generate from the viewer. Granted, Bird People in China had a happier ending than 9 Souls, but in both cases you’ll find yourself spending nearly the whole movie hoping that the men will eventually succeed and finally find what they’ve been looking for.

Cinematically the film was beautiful. Every shot and scene was well crafted and the pacing was perfect. There weren’t any slow scenes or two plus minute segments of people just walking down the street doing nothing in particular. Toshiyaki has a really great feel for how a story should flow and how to manipulate the feel of a scene for maximum effect. Judging by his work in this film, you can definitely tell that he has the instincts of a brilliant filmmaker.

9 Souls is a masterwork of Japanese cinema and is the sort of film that can be appreciated and enjoyed by as much by the casual viewer as it can by those who consider themselves aficionados of Asian film. The story is wonderfully engaging and the great mix of humor and drama will have you thinking about what you’ve seen long after the film is over.

As is the usual case with ArtsmagicDVD releases, This one has several great extras. There’s interviews with the director Toshiaki Toyoda, trailers, bio & filmographies, promotional material, and a full length commentary with Japanese cinema expert, Tom Mes.

At two full hours the running time may seem a little excessive, but unlike many other films out there, not a bit of that two hours is wasted on anything other than telling a great story. Do yourself a favor and add this film to your DVD library. You won’t be sorry.

If you’d like to pick up this disc, or check out some of ArtsmagicDVD’s other releases you can check out their website at http://www.artsmagicdvd.com.