9 Souls by Toshiaki Toyoda (Review)

There’s a moment when “9 Souls” ceases being an entertaining film about bumbling ex-cons and becomes something far deeper.
9 Souls, Toshiaki Toyoda

I had originally planned to catch one more movie after 9 Souls, thereby ending my first visit to the Toronto International Film Festival with an even 12 movies under my belt. I considered going to Johnnie To’s PTU (even though I’d picked up the DVD in Chinatown earlier that week), Silence Between Two Thoughts (which, from the description, sounded like a powerful film about religious extremism), and The Cooler (if only to see William H. Macy’s storied performance). However, 9 Souls was such a great movie that I didn’t want to risk seeing another one lest I end the fest on a bad note.

9 Souls opens with Michiru, a sullen teenager who recently murdered his father getting tossed into a cell with several other prisoners. Shortly after his arrival, they make the fortuitous discovery of a hole in the floor of their cell (the first of several plot devices that happen all too conveniently, but add so much charm to the movie). As the 9 prisoners make their getaway in the second best opening sequence of any movie I saw all week (right behind Save the Green Planets), we’re quickly introduced to our ​“protagonists.”

Some are thieves, some drug dealers, some gangsters, and some are even murderers. They all come from different backgrounds and ages, but they all know they don’t want to go back to jail. Led by the oldest of the prisoners, the gruff Torakichi, they steal a truck and head for a school located at the foot of Mt. Fuji. There they’ll find a stash of counterfeit money that will allow them to start over.

Needless to say, plenty of funny bickering and darkly humorous, albeit twisted hijinks ensue. Some of the more, shall we say, frustrated prisoners find a flock of lovely sheep, and things get more and more disturbing until a hilarious twist. And every time the prisoners dress in disguise, be it in drag or cheap mustaches, it’s bound to have you chuckling, if not doubled over. But there’s a moment when 9 Souls ceases being an entertaining film about bumbling, arguing ex-cons, and becomes something far greater and deeper.

After preventing Michiru (who is still packing a serious amount of repressed anger) from braining Torakichi with a brick, the nine prisoners find themselves in front of a strip club placed smack dab in the middle of nowhere (yet another all-too convenient plot device that makes no sense, and yet somehow does). For a moment, it looks like the film is going to take on an exploitative tone, or at best, simply throw out some gratuitous T&A while a nubile young woman does her striptease.

But writer/​director Toshiaki Toyoda (perhaps best known for his ​“angry youth” film Pornostar, which I’ve been meaning to see for awhile) subverts our expectations beautifully. Instead of treating the audience to some lewd display of flesh, he treats us to a poignant reunion between one of the prisoners and the woman he loved, as well as his kidney. (See the movie — it’ll all make sense.)

After that scene, the movie is never the same. Whereas before they were nothing more than a motley crew of thugs and lowlifes that seemed good only for cheap laughs and bawdy humor involving farm animals, they slowly reveal themselves to be wounded men looking for redemption. One by one, the men begin to leave the group, hoping to somehow put things right with their life. The group’s muscle, a mountain of a man named Ushiyama whose violent streak is trumpeted by the press, finds peace and happiness serving others as a waiter. Fujio, who was arrested for peddling porn, simply wants to take back the woman who cheated on him and marry her. Torakichi, who was jailed for killing his son, wants to make atonement to the family that he failed.

For awhile, it looks like these men might get their wish. But sadly, it’s not meant to be. They can’t escape their crimes, and eventually, their pasts begin to catch up with them. This is best seen in the character of Kazuma, a former gang-leader who was convicted of killing several of his friends. Despite putting on a tough front throughout the movie, either kicking ass while dressed in drag or strutting around his leather jacket, he’s the only one who seems to realize their escape is merely temporary. In the film’s final act, as he heads into Tokyo with the last remaining gangsters, everything he says and does is a deliberate step towards one last act of reparation.

Deep down inside, I knew this movie couldn’t have a happy ending. At best, it has an ambiguous one. Not all of the prisoners get caught, but the few survivors face an uncertain future. Even if they never go back to prison, they can never go back to the way things were. Their friends and family have turned on them out of shame and spite, and the law certainly won’t give up their pursuit.

As the film moved towards its inevitable conclusion, I found myself growing sad. I had grown to like, even love these characters in spite of their horrible crimes, nasty personalities, and incorrigible behavior. I wanted Ushiyama to master his anger, to spend a content life serving others and perhaps even fall in love with his pretty co-worker. I wanted Fujio to have true love, as opposed to the cheap substitute that he peddled. I wanted them all to be happy, even the sulking Michiru, who finally opens up in the closing minutes, only to be dragged back down by anger and betrayal in the film’s most stomach-churning scene. I didn’t want any of these men to get their comeuppance. I didn’t want justice to be done. Rather, I wanted them to experience grace.

And deep down inside, I think Toyoda felt the same way. It’s obvious that he loves these guys, and I’d like to believe that their eventual downfalls were just as painful for him to write and film, as they are to watch. Once again, Japanese cinema startles me with its subtle way of building characters (and its love of ambiguous endings). As with Ping Pong and Adrenaline Drive (two other wonderful Japanese films that you should really check out), most of the character development is so slight that it seems non-existent. And yet you find yourself thinking about these people for days after watching the movie. You miss them, and you want to see them again.

You find yourself wishing you were back on the road with those lovable scumbags, crammed into the back of a tiny truck listening to them berate one another. They’re bad guys and they know it, but mixed in with the guilt is a hope that even people as screwed up as them can find redemption and meaning in their lives. And that’s something that speaks mightily to me.