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Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2003
Journey to the center of the soul for nasty 9
Toshiaki Toyoda makes films about males behaving violently -- which might be said of dozens of directors and producers, both in Japan and Hollywood. Mr. Toyoda, meet Mr. Bruckheimer. But Toyoda, a former shogi (Japanese chess) prodigy, is hardly a typical purveyor of bang-bang action for the masses. For one thing, instead of in-charge macho men, his protagonists tend to be marginal types whose inner hurts are as large, if not larger, than those they inflict on others.
Already close to the edge from their first scene, they explode into unthinking rage when nudged over. They are rebels with neither a cause nor a clue.
In Toyoda's 1999 feature debut, "Porno star," the hero -- a psychopathic hulk in an anorak -- kills yakuza as a sort of cleansing ritual. He is obsessed with purity, but minus any religion or ideology, he can barely say why.
In "Aoi Haru (Blue Spring)," Toyoda's 2002 film set in a high school-turned-war zone, the teenage heroes play deadly games out of terminal boredom. Even so, they rather like their institution of nonlearning -- it offers a large, graffiti-smeared stage for their chaotic performance art. But again, their antisocial acts owe more to id than intellect. Their nihilism is more of a blank shrug than an articulate howl.
"9 Souls," Toyoda's followup to "Aoi Haru," is similar in theme, if several shades lighter. Instead of flirting with oblivion, the nine heroes -- all cons on the lam -- are determined to make the most of their new freedom. At the same time, they can't rewind the past or easily change the bad behavior that got them into trouble in the first place. The various salvations and absolutions they are seeking remain distant shimmering goals -- like the image of Tokyo Tower that opens the film, standing tall and bright over a blasted plain.
As is often the case with Toyoda, there's something overdetermined about the journey of the nine toward their appointed fates; they are less men with free wills than shogi pieces in the hands of a player who can see a dozen moves ahead. But Toyoda also has an original visual imagination, a twisted comic mind -- and a way of adroitly combining the two to advance his themes. Japanese road movies have a way of getting lost in their own picaresque conceits; Toyoda keeps his film traveling down, if not the straight and narrow, at least a road with scenery that is consistently engaging, if at times outright strange.
"9 Souls" begins with that shot of Tokyo Tower -- overlaid by a long knife held in the hand of Michiru Kaneko (Ryuhei Matsuda). The knife is soon plunged into Michiru's domineering father and Michiru, a recluse (hikikomori) for the past 10 years, is sent to prison for 13 more.
There he finds himself in a room with other cons -- all hard cases serving long sentences. Their boss, the gruff Hasegawa (Yoshio Harada), is doing a 16-year stretch for killing his own son. But as awful as some of their crimes were, they are, at mealtimes, as orderly and subdued as accountants in the company cafeteria. Then one, Yamamoto (Jun Kunimura), freaks out and starts raving about a fortune hidden in a "time capsule" at his old primary school near the foot of Mount Fuji.
The guards drag Yamamoto away, but the other cons believe him. Soon after, led by Shi ratori (Mame Yamada), a midget escape artist, they go under the walls and scamper off into the woods. After flagging down a dilapidated camper advertising a strip club on its side, they tie up the driver and sail off down the road, free at last.
Their first stop is the house of Nakayama (Jun Inoue) -- an old prison mate of Hasegawa's who is now trying to go straight with his stocky Filipino bride. There they find food, clothes and showers, but a cold welcome from the bride, who sees them for what they are: louts on a spree.
True, they are uncouth and clownish as they steal coins from a temple donation box, rob a roadside store and sashay into a restaurant, dressed in drag to avoid detection. But as their journey continues, they begin to emerge as distinct personalities, from the gentle-spirited, but bull-strong Ushiyama (Genta Dairaku) to the wimpy, weasely Inui (Takuji Suzuki), who becomes the gang's butt. They also begin to forge a rough group solidarity including all but Michiru, the youngest, quietest -- and most dangerous, as Hasegawa soon finds out.
When they discover that Yamamoto's "treasure" is a worthless glass key "to the future," they begin to go their separate ways and meet their individual fates, for better or worse. Shiratori is the first to go, reuniting with a former student and lover (Misako Ito) -- now a stripper at the club advertised on the camper van. Most of the nine are not so lucky -- death claims some, disappointment greets others. But the camper finally rolls into Tokyo and Michiru goes, brick in hand, to take care of unfinished business.
Compared with all the films that treat life on the run as an adventure or lark, "9 Souls" is on the dark side, telling unpleasant truths: Japanese society is stingy with second chances and children are slow to forgive the sins of their parents. But as hard as Toyoda can be on his scapegrace heroes, he allows them their humanity and gives them moments of bliss. They, too, have souls, he seems to say, even if their idea of heaven is a camper crammed with junk food. Not a bad idea, really. Freedom is where you find it -- and just consider their alternatives.