Toshiaki Toyoda’s 9 SOULS offers an interesting alternative to the majority of prison break films. Instead of leading to a climactic escape and building suspense, this 2003 feature gets that out of the way immediately. By beginning with the break out, the film focuses instead on the aftermath and details the complex relations between its nine characters, as well as their relations to the outside world. What sounds like an intriguing premise on paper, however, is compromised by a variety of factors.
The film begins with youngster Michuru’s incarceration in a crowded cell for killing his father. Upon introduction to his nine cellmates, he and the group are informed by the outlandish Yamamoto of hidden buried treasure. Yamamoto distracts the guards with a bizarre outburst, allowing the remaining nine escape through the sewage system. This feat, planned by diminutive jail breaker Shiatori, takes the men through processes of male bonding and eventually leads them to attempt to find their own way in life.
Although the film jettisons suspense by withholding the information of the forthcoming break out and then showing the immediate aftermath, 9 SOULS nevertheless attempts to provoke reactions in the viewer. Instead of the familiar action movie tropes, Toyoda is quick to bombard us with childish toilet humour as Yamamoto goes on an over-the-top rant complete with contorted stares directly into the camera ("What’s this hair in my food? It’s from an asshole. We’re in the asshole of the universe. Which makes us constipated shit. Hey constipated shit!"). This overextended attempt at humour wears thin immediately, and the attempted proximity to the viewer marks a desperate attempt to appeal to the audience. (It does, however, work as story development: when he continues with talk of being “flushed out” it works as a metaphor to set up the escape via manhole.)
Just as the film begins by appealing to the lowest common denominator, it follows with increasingly ill-advised attempts to get itself noticed. After the men crawl out of the manhole, the film tries to establish an iconic quality to its characters to make them more memorable. Cue images of the men running together accompanied by freeze frame close ups that introduce each characters: i.e. Kamel the “Porn King”, Shiatori the “Master Escapist”, etc. These individual images are presented in shallow focus, obscuring the background and emphasising the subjects, all of whom are frozen in a state of action, i.e. running, leaping, etc. This near comic book type of imagery and character development is ill suited to the cinematic format and represents another strained attempt to establish itself as “fun” among the viewer.
The first half of the film is keen to maximise the possibility of humorous situations that can be gleaned from the conflicts between a gang of nine convicts with relative normality. Immediately after their escape, the group need to both find transportation and offer an “excuse” for their uniformed garb. When they come into contact with a van driver, they thus line up by the side of the road and pose as Karate students, with Torakichi taking the role of instructor. Their lift secured, the driver asks the men “How are you all doing?” followed by a reaction shot of them all cramped together and pulling cartoonish faces. The humour grates, but after they rid themselves of their host the convicts’ attempt to waylay and rape a sheep (a parody of sexual repression suffered by inmates) is pure idiocy.
One of the chief problems of presenting an ensemble of this length is that it affects the pacing: to put it bluntly, it is difficult to lug around nine protagonists. Luckily, however, the men begin midway through to deteriorate as a group, setting the way for the various individual stories to unfold. This is prefigured interestingly by a quarrel between Michiguru and Toragichi: a conflict between a young man who murdered his father with an older man who killed his son. Just as the early sequences are depicted with single camera set ups with the men engaged together in various states of activity, the latter scenes are typified by individual close ups which isolate them from one another as they go in different directions.
As the various stories unfold, the film sheds its humorous skin in favour of a more poignant approach. The dwarf Shaitori - the master escapist - is also revealed to be a doctor who donated one of his kidneys for the love of woman: an erotic dancer who he comes into contact with again at a roadside strip club. This prefigures some of the other paths that the men choose to take: Kamel seeks out his lost love and proposes to her, but is arrested by the police; and this bittersweet tone displaces the earlier broad comedy. The most successful episode would have to be the shooting of Saruwatari after a bungled robbery: bleeding to death on a park bench, he hallucinates getting back with his girlfriend before passing away.
Despite the brief success, however, the film cannot go far without making a pig’s ear of itself. Ushiyama’s attempts to lead a normal life are thwarted when he is eventually recognised by his colleagues at a diner as one of the nine criminals: frustrated, he beats himself to death. Despite the now serious tone, this sequence is as idiotic as that which we had to suffer during the earlier stages.
Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda
Japanese With English Subtitles / Colour / 120 mins
SPECIAL DVD FEATURES
An Artsmagic DVD Release
Region 2 / Pal / Widescreen 16:9