If Blue Spring was director Toshiaki Toyoda's breakout hit, 9 Souls [Nain Souruzu] was the film that would confirm his status as lasting talent. And in many ways it did exactly that, except that the film failed to make a big splash. I watched it all the way back in 2004 and really loved it, but somehow the film has flown under the radar ever since. A few years ago Third Window Films put out a classy Toyoda box containing a sleek BluRay upgrade of the film, so it was time to revisit Toyoda's early masterpiece and see if maybe I'd overestimated the strengths of this film. I'm happy to say I didn't. At all.
I'm not sure why, but Toyoda has struggled to get proper recognition for his films since the beginning of his career. He's obviously a very capable director, his output has been very consistent, and he has one of the most impressive back catalogs of all directors still working in Japan today. His films receive their share of praise too, but somehow he never managed to create enough momentum to keep himself into the spotlight. As a fan of his work, that's pretty infuriating as his work has remained largely unavailable for home consumption. All the more reason to make some extra noise about 9 Souls.
9 Souls is vintage Toyoda, though maybe a little lighter in tone. There's still that bit of grit and punk running underneath, but there's also room for more contemplative moments and a little humor. It comes with the territory, as 9 Souls is built on the framework of an archetypical road movie, a genre that is known to balance drama, comedy and crime elements. Toyoda's take isn't just a simple genre film though, he works within the constraints of the genre and adds his own touches where needed.
The film revolves around a group of 9 convicts who manage to escape from prison. A former cellmate of theirs spilled the beans about a hidden treasure, so before they each go their own way they decide to go and look for the money. With the police on their tail they have to plan their moves carefully, though internal squabbles, incompatible character traits and a general lack of carefulness make their journey a lot harder than it should've been. It makes for a very interesting film though, where each character is given a little time to shine.
While not the most visually striking film in Toyoda's oeuvre, it's clear that he paid ample attention to the styling in 9 Souls. From the immaculate slow-motion footage to nicely framed scenic moments, from the powerful use of color to the elaborate decors, every scene has at least some level of visual detail that elevates the overall styling. It may not be as overpowering as some of its contemporaries, but that's probably because it's more in line with Toyoda's underlying punk aesthetic, which isn't quite as colorful or flashy to begin with. Regardless, people who love visual playfulness won't be disappointed by this film.
The soundtrack is another area where Toyoda never disappoints. While he works with a genre (rock/punk) that isn't really my own, he applies the music with great care and uses it to support, guide and ground certain scenes. The soundtrack creates a vibe and rhythm that runs underneath the film and functions as a foundation for all the rest. While the music doesn't pull too much attention to itself here, looking back at 9 Souls is a bit like remembering a song. It's not just words and meaning, but very much a feeling that lingers.
One thing I forgot about this film is how great the cast is. While there are no clear leads, Yoshio Harada and Ryûhei Matsuda take on the primary roles. Their characters get the most (important) screen time, which isn't too surprising considering their status. But the rest of the cast is pretty great too, with a strong supporting cast consisting of Itsuji Itao, Ichi Omiya, Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Mame Yamada, and fun cameos by Kazuki Kitamura, Jun Kunimura, Akaji Maro and Takako Matsu. I'm pretty sure many a director would be jealous of such a line-up.
What makes 9 Souls stand out is that it sports a road trip with 9 very unique characters who each have different goals and aspirations, but need to spend some time together first before they can move on with their lives. Usually road movies are centered around a small central cast with a common goal, that dynamic is completely turned upside down here as each character eventually ventures off on his own. It allows Toyoda to work in and play with different moods. Some conclusions are melancholic, others are tragic and emotional, even others are joyful and hopeful. It brings a lot of life to the film, but it also leaves room for some unfinished business, which may not be to everyone's liking.
9 Souls is a very accomplished film, from a director who clearly knew what he wanted to make and had the chops to actually make it happen. I'd hoped that through reviewing the film I would somehow come up with an answer as to why this film is so criminally overlooked, but I'm afraid I couldn't give you any plausible theory. The presentation is slick, performances are grand, the themes are varied and properly explored and all these things complement each other. 9 Souls is great, nothing more, nothing less. Another killer addition to Toyoda's impressive oeuvre that deserves more praise and attention than it has received to far.