Japanese filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda artfully reconstructs the prison escape drama in 9 Souls (2003) by combining comic, absurdist and dramatic elements with stunning cinematography. Toyoda is a skillful director whose strength lies in his ability to balance complex layering of contrasting styles while maintaining a tight reign over storytelling elements.
An astonishing initial sequence opens the film with a wide-angle, birds-eye view over Tokyo. As the camera moves across the city, buildings and other features randomly turn black and disappear. Accompanied by the hypnotic music of Japanese alternative rock band ‘dip’, the effect is jaw dropping. The scene tightens and as it does, the frequency of these disappearances quickens until we reach our destination, a tower, which is also being studied by young Michiru (Ryuhei Matsuda). Framed by jagged architectural features, he holds a knife alongside the tower while an argument between his father and brother intensifies in another room. Tension fills the scene; we sense but do not see the upcoming violence.
We next see Michiru, head shaved and in prison garb, being led into a common cell filled with men of various ages. The film follows nine of these convicts, led by the eldest of the prisoners, Torakichi (Yoshio Harada), as they escape from prison and travel in a van to the location of a hidden money cache stashed away by a fellow prisoner known as “The Counterfeit King”. The ensuing road trip is filled with comic moments that encourage our identification with these men while heightening the sharply contrasting tragedy of their lives. Discovering the money is not where it was supposed to be, the convicts face Mt. Fuji and at this point the movie takes a turn, as one by one, each man leaves the group in a heartbreaking endeavor to achieve his own personal, often simple goals, now beyond reach due to the consequences of their past choices.
Symbolic elements imbue the film with poetic qualities; a key, the tower, and the van represent various psychological needs that drive the protagonists’ thoughts and actions. With the first half of the film dedicated to character development, the men form bonds with one another, their backgrounds and motivations gradually unfolding. As the film progresses, the pace picks up, as does the violence. By the end, we become aware of one of Toyoda’s great themes, the individual sense of isolation that fuels each member’s need to remain united as a group.
Clocking in at over two hours, 9 Souls requires viewer involvement. Close attention needs to be paid to follow back-stories, and the symbolism may escape the less thoughtful. Those that stick with it are rewarded with a highly memorable cinematic experience. Every aspect of this film works, from the imaginative camera work and powerful performances to the perfectly integrated soundtrack, each playing together seamlessly in this unforgettable film. From within the multitude of Japanese directors working today, Toyoda’s is a voice that needs to be heard.