Having watched Toshiaki Toyoda’s first film, Pornostar, I decided to continue with his work by watching his third film, 9 Souls, because... um, I could.
Nine convicts escape from prison. Stealing a motorhome they drive through Japan to find a hidden cache of cash, though as the hunt goes on, they each begin to realise what matters to them and where happiness might have been.
If I called Pronostar a muscular piece of filmmaking there is something of the same to 9 Souls, but here Toyoda as a director feels far more assured. 9 Souls is nothing if not a confident piece of work, and it needs to be because at heart it is a picaresque film. Unless you have lightning in a bottle like Frank Capra’s classy and classic screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, (OK, I know, it's a very different film and era) picaresque films can just come off as meandering, and at nearly two-hours there was plenty of opportunity for 9 Souls to lose its way, but it doesn’t, not even once. The confidence is further revealed by how our nine convicts on the run are generally rounded characters. There's no space for cyphers and even some of the side characters, such as the young waitress in a hick restaurant, feels much more of a character than she should for someone who barely has any screentime.
Yet it is the commitment to the characters that makes the film. Yes, there are elements of the police search for our convicts, but it doesn’t focus much on police chases, rather it uses their notoriety as a device for developing their characters and for setting up some gloriously unexpected moments. The scene where our protagonists clamber out of their dilapidated motorhome, all in drag, could have been hideously crass but struck me as perhaps the best drag moment in a film since Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon’s escape from the mob in Some Like it Hot. Coming out of nowhere it's a startlingly charming moment, especially the nominal leader of the convicts, Torakichi (Yoshio Harada) with his brusque manner strutting his gowned-up self is so beautifully incongruous, and yet it’s never bad taste - there's nothing to suggest you should be laughing at cross-dressers because the film just hits the right tone. This is continued with other forms of disguise at times, even if that's no more than a dodgy moustache or else the mutual wearing of overalls as an almost uniform. As you will have guessed, the film has a lot of humour running throughout, helpful as it leavens some of the more tragic and violent moments. Unsurprisingly, like Pornostar, the film can be bloody but again the violence never feels unpleasant, or overly graphic, though it might not be for the faint of heart. It can be a propulsive film, powered by a rock soundtrack, so the violence should come as no surprise.
9 Souls has the ability to march into surreal territories too. A strip club appearing on the road beside a rice paddy is bizarre and yet feels natural in the context of the film. It’s almost Lynchian in its appearance and not just for the sake of bizarreness, but in such a way that it becomes integral to the plot. But really, it’s the characters that drive the film forward and stop the film's picaresque nature dragging it down. That and 9 Souls has real heart to it. Our escapees are treated as human beings and as they spill out into the world, looking for the hope that they lost in prison. You feel that no matter their outcomes that the film has a real sense that these are real people, sometimes as much victims as anyone here, and their dreams are real and humanly relatable. And this is in the context of recognising that we know their crimes, with none of them jailed for merely spitting out chewing gum on the pavements. They are an array of murderers, low level porn dealers and other appropriately violent miscreants; on paper these are not nice guys and are willing to rob and steal to get to where they want to be, but are also capable of paying their way. These are complex people and the cast are often given the space to act this out. Tragedy goes hand in hand with comedy, but as the anchor of the film, Yoshio Harada deserves the highest acting honours because he carries much of the film on his experienced shoulders, though there are lovely sidebars like the diminutive Mame Yamada as Shiratori, whose character is the emotional heart of the film, being the most humane and relatable individual.
Ultimately 9 Souls is a very fine film indeed. Its humour is pitched at just the right level and it feels very much the work of a director who has found their voice, and who is able to explore the darkness of our souls while understanding that often we all seek for the same human experiences and futures. It’s a very human, understatedly humane film even when it splatters blood.