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Review © Alex Apple, 2004.

Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda, 2003, 120 min. starring Ryuhei Matsuda, Yoshio Harada, Mame Yamada, Jun Kunimura, Koji Chihara, Itsuji Itao, Kee, and Onimaru.

To be fair, I wasn't hugely impressed by Toshiaki Toyoda's second movie, Blue Spring; in places it dragged, and wasn't half as profound as it wanted to be. So, if I'm honest, I wasn't expecting a huge amount from Nine Souls, despite a reasonably well-known cast featuring fangirl heartthrob Ryuhei Matsuda, Jun Kunimura and Mame Yamada (the little gardener from Blue Spring).

How wrong I was.

Ostensibly a prison breakout movie, Nine Souls breaks away from that tried and tested formula to become much more. Part thriller, part drama, part road movie, part Shakespearean tragedy, it's a journey through nine people's dreams for their newly-discovered, and unexpected, freedom; of the paranoia they face as they try to reconcile those dreams with the fact that the entire country has been mobilised to try to track them down; and of the realities that hit them as it becomes time to face their pasts, and their futures.


Nine Souls opens with perhaps the most memorable opening sequence in recent memory. The camera swoops over Tokyo, showing the city full of life until, suddenly, single buildings start to blacken, blur and disappear. Soon this infection takes over the entire city, rendering it a browned wasteland, bar the TV tower in the centre of the metropolis.

In a tower close to the TV transmitter, a young man, later to be revealed as Michiru Kaneko (played by a perma-pouting Ruyhei Matsuda), is cradling a knife, listening to his family arguing about money. There's a feeling that something is about to happen, though at this stage in the movie all the violence is implicit. We next see Kaneko being delivered to a cell – which we're told is the least crowded in the entire jail, although there's nine in there already. Everything is grey, drab, institutional. There's no welcome from Kaneko's fellow inmates either, other than a few words from Yamamoto (Jun Kunimura, sadly only in a cameo role here), a master forger, who is assigned by one of the guards to look after the fresh detainee. He's also the guy in charge. Just moments later, though, Yamamoto finds a hair in his soup and goes mental, baiting the guards, whilst at the same time revealing the location of a secret stash of counterfeit currency, before being bundled out by the warders. In the chaos that ensues, a mouse and mousehole is spotted by little person Shiratori (Mame Yamada) – escape is possible. So all nine climb out into unexpected freedom – and cue Toyoda's trademark slo-mo title sequence with loud rock music.

So far, then, the movie goes pretty much to type as a prison escape drama. The first sign of the wonders to come though is when the entire troupe strip off to pretend to be Kendo students in order to get a lift from a man who needs some help to dump some garbage from the back of his van. Of course, it's not long until they nick the van and leave him gaffer-taped up to a tree. Quietly, Kaneko grabs a brick from the pile of rubbish and secretly loads it into his area in the back of the van. After an unforeseen – in all senses – encounter with a few sheep on the way, the group – still bickering on who has to drive, reinforcing the point that they're victims of circumstance and resolutely not friends - end up at a house belonging to Nakayama, an old friend of the new group leader Torakichi. After causing bedlam at the house, and driving Nakayama's Filipino wife Maria to leave him, the group pile into the van in brand new jumpsuits – with Torakichi also purloining Nakayama's wedding suit.

It's here that events start to take an increasingly surreal turn. First, they dress up in drag - all of them - to try to pass incognito in a café, the media now flooding the airwaves with appeals for sightings of them. After boss Torakichi holds up a newsagents, mad bomber Inoui arrives late back at the van, and is forced to chase it, alternately jeered and cheered on by his colleagues, until he collapses fitting on the roadway. Shiratori, a former doctor jailed for multiple assisted suicides attends to him, followed by some of the others.

Torakichi, however, decides to take a leak by the side of the road in the paddy field, only for Kaneko to launch himself at him brandishing his brick. The ensuing scuffle is broken up only when Shiratori spots a strip club – seemingly in the middle of nowhere – into which the group enthusiastically enter. Shiratori realises he knows one of the strippers there – she's a girl to whom he donated one of his kidneys – and, after a touching scene where they are reunited and she allows him to touch her scar through one of the peep-holes, he decides to stay.

And so, one by one, the group start to drift off, not least after the odyssey to Mount Fuji Elementary school to find the stash of buried money proves to be fruitless. And really, it's here that Nine Souls starts to truly find its feet and becomes truly magnificent.

You need to work at this film. The first forty minutes are, superficially at least, slow going and it's easy to feel bewildered by the number of lead characters and the fact that we seem to cut from one to another very quickly but without really getting to know them. The opening portion of the film is very much a voyage of discovery – for the characters as well as us, to be honest – as we discover what motivates each of them, what each of them wants from their freedom, and the necessary details of their (mostly heinous) crimes. But watch the movie again, and you'll notice tiny, almost imperceptible details that you missed first time around but which add to the dense richness on repeat viewings.

As the dénouement unravels, it's easy to get massively sucked into the fate of each of the gang. There are some stunning sequences in which separation from loved ones, capture and, ultimately, death are presented in such a poetic way that it's breathtaking. There's an amazing sequence in which one of the prisoners, fatally wounded in a shoot-out and nearing the point of death, has a dreamed conversation with his girlfriend whom he still loves but who, for the purposes of the scene, is also playing the role of Death, ready to accompany on the journey away from life. Equally, the pathos in another similar scene, where another former inmate is about to present his girlfriend with a marriage proposal only to be recaptured before he is able to deliver it, is almost heartbreaking.

That's not to say this movie is a humourless affair, as some of it is very funny indeed, especially if you have a surreal sense of humour. There's plenty of cross-dressing, which in the case of Ryuhei Matsuda will have the fangirls squeeing once more, and bonkers disguises. Some of the choices that the prisoners make are odd, to say the least, following the brain in their trousers rather than the brain in their heads. And equally, some of the dialogue is very funny indeed.

Beautifully shot, flawlessly measured, Nine Souls is about as close to perfection as you could want. Strong performances from the ensemble cast, the most outstanding of which is delivered by Yoshio Harada's masterful depiction of deeply conflicted murderer Torakichi, underpin what is a thoughtful script powered by artful direction from Toyoda. On an artistic, cinematic and human level this movie affects the heart and the head in equal measure. You need to see this film.

Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 9/10 - one mark taken off for the slow start
Violence: 6/10 - occasionally very violent, but only when it has to be
Sex: 1/10, for the sheep. Yes, I said sheep. You'll see.
Ryuhei Matsuda: pout/10. *squee, dies*
Crap disguises: That would fool no-one, not even a blind man/10
Bamboozling yet strangely mesmeric finale: 1.

Films in a Similar Style: Blue Spring, strangely. Suicide Circle, even more strangely. The Shawshank Redemption.

*** Essential! ***

Nine Souls Wallpaper
please note: the actual paper does not have the Snowblood Apple logo on it.

You can download this wallpaper here: [800x600] [1024x768]
Wallpaper credit: Alex Apple, 2004

Snowblood Apple Filmographies

Toshiaki Toyoda
Ryuhei Matsuda
Mame Yamada
Jun Kunimura
Yoshio Harada

Links and - Artsmagic very kindly provided this movie to us for review, and are due to release the DVD in January 2005. The US Artsmagic site also has images and desktops for the movie for your delectation! - Toshiaki Toyoda's official site [Japanese only] - an excellent review at jpreview, as always - a very insightful but somewhat short review at Wild Violet - 9 Souls has just been shown at the 53rd MIFF - a very nice and succinct review at SFIndiefest - 9 Souls at Midnight Eye

this review (c) Alex Apple, 2004. all other text and webdesign (c) 2002, 2003, 2004 M. Apple Collingridge, A. Collingridge, Larry D Burns. All characters, situations and images remain the property of their respective owners. The text and webdesign of this site may not be copied, reproduced, mirrored, printed commercially or ripped off in any other way. Do not hotlink directly to images hosted on this site.