9 Souls (2003)

Rating: B-

Dir: Toshiaki Toyoda
Star: Yoshio Harada, Ryuhei Matsuda, Jun Kunimura, Mame Yamada

The opening shot here is one of the most stunning I can remember: it’s an aerial view of the Japanese capital but, slowly at first, buildings decay and evaporate until all that’s left is Tokyo Tower. It’s breathtaking…and I have absolutely no idea what it means – the Tom Mes commentary on the DVD sheds no light either. This sums up the film: for every beautifully-judged shot or scene, there’s another one that remains almost impenetrable. The titular souls are convicts who escape from prison, and embark on a journey, partly in search of a cash stash, partly in search of themselves. In other hands, that might end up trite or shallow, yet Toyoda does a good job of balancing comedic, dramatic and tragic elements, and they rarely seem jarring. Though we could perhaps have done without the sheep-shagging, and I’m hard-pushed to think of a film with more urination.

As our anti-heroes travel across country in a beat-up van, their numbers slowly decline as people find the place they want to stay: a strip-club in the middle of nowhere, a restaurant, and so on. Despite the sizable number of characters, they are delineated well, and you come to care for them; you feel any one could have been the focus of an entire movie on their own. Less successful is a storyline which relies on coincidence to an uncomfortable extent, such as one escapee’s daughter getting married the very day they arrive in Tokyo. However, in this kind of semi-surreal film, where clouds change shape on command, realistic plotting is clearly not high on the list of priorities, and it doesn’t cripple the movie as much as it might. The end result is still uneven, but possesses enough moments of genius and wit to make it worth your while.