9 Souls is exactly the sort of film I can’t imagine being made in the West – it’s sometimes sweet and funny, other times brutal and tasteless. The souls of the title are a group of convicts, who are sharing a cell and discover a passage in the floor that leads to the outside world. The gang procure an old van and hit the road with the intention of finding and recovering some counterfeit loot that a former cellmate has hidden. The gang range from the out-right dangerous (epileptic bomber Inui, businessman Torakichi, who murdered his own son) to the deeply sympathetic (dwarf doctor Shiratori, imprisoned for committing euthanasia). Their journey across country leads them to a variety of strange encounters, but inevitably their fugitive status catches up with them.
Nine lead characters are a lot to juggle, and inevitably director Toshiaki Toyoda is unable to develop them to any great depth. Ostensively, the film is seen through the eyes of the newest cellmate, young Michiru, responsible for killing his abusive father. Michiru watches from the sidelines, as the gang laugh, fight and dream about the loot they will soon be getting their hands on. It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of which character is which, but Toyoda doesn’t really worry about spending time with each one, relying more upon dialogue and mood than strong characterisation to move the film along.
The first half is played out as a surreal comedy. The gang’s escape from prison is ridiculously easy, and there any number of hilariously bizarre moments – the group disguised either as women or with giant moustaches, Shiratori encountering a stripper he once performed a life-saving operation on in a weird out-of-the-way strip club, Fujio revealing he was once the star of a porn movie. And one gloriously tasteless scene sees a few of the escapees ‘relieving’ their pent-up sexual frustrations on, er, a flock of sheep. Throughout, the dialogue flows naturally between the actors, while the consistently inventive photography and chiming guitar music create a quirky, dreamlike feel.
The convicts eventually reach the location of the hidden treasure, but what they find is not the expected fortune. So one-by-one the group separates, and with the strange protection the group offered gone, real life comes crashing in. Some make doomed attempts to re-enter the legitimate world, some try to continue their lives of crime, while others are victims of chance. Safe to say that there’s not really a happy ending for any of these people, but Toyoda still manages to close on an upbeat, quietly moving note.
9 Souls does have trouble sustaining its 120 minute running time, and the switch from comedy to tragedy is somewhat jarring. That said, this mix of whimsy and brutality is common to many Japanese directors – Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike – and this inventive, thoughtful film often rivals those directors' best work.