January sees us release young director Toshiaki Toyoda's third film, 9 Souls. To complement the film, we've managed to get, not one, but two exclusive interviews with the director. This was partly because our distributor offered us the chance of a second interview and it seemed churlish to turn it down, but also because our first interview had been conducted at the same time as the one for Blue Spring, and we'd run out of time. The two interviews are quite different in feel. In the earlier, Toyoda is given a lot of time to consider his answers, and we get measured responses. In the second, our normal interviewer was unavailable and had to call on the services of a less experienced colleague. She regarded every pause as an opportunity to put forward another question, or to interpret the last question, or to comment on the answers. The result, for us at least, was entertaining. Because of the pace, a very real person emerges, much more the character you'd be likely to be talking to in a bar than a Master of Ceremonies. The misinterpretation of some of the questions has also its humorous aspect. When we question the director as to whether he regrets the passing of Japanese traditions, she explains that this is not what the Japanese might regard as such, but what a foreigner might think are Japanese, such as women walking behind men, or keeping quiet. So suddenly we find we're apparently asking the director whether or not he regrets the fact that women don't keep quiet any longer. It is always interesting to find out what you look like through the wrong end of a telescope.
9 Souls is one of the most accomplished films that has come out of Japan recently. Toyoda himself appears to be a director who doesn't put a foot wrong. If, for some, this is because he doesn't venture far off the beaten path, as far as form is concerned, he has most definitely chosen the way he wishes to follow. He's not interested in what he feels are the excesses of modern Japanese cinema, and berates Miike for not making proper films. However, his subject matter can be outrageous even by the standards set by his fellow countrymen. The first thing his 9 Souls do, having broken out of jail, is find a sheep to have sex with. Only one of them finds the fact that the victim happens to be a ram a cause for concern. And in a sense this scene sets the tone of the whole enterprise.
Toyoda's humour has a lot in common with the great slapstick comedians of the silent screen, who suffer the slings and arrows with a puzzled expression, as well as directing a good few of their own without any seeming malice. Nearly all the convicts who make up the 9 Souls have been convicted of anti-social behaviour of the utmost gravity. One is a father killer, one murdered his son, a biker blew away four of his gang...and so the list continues. But the viewer is rarely alienated from these spiritual outcasts. The genial stoicism with which they accept whatever is hurled at that, whilst sensibly attempting to avoid it, and their attempts to perform some small good from time to time, makes them immediately our neighbours and psychological look-alikes. The past of each one is disentangled before our eyes as they journey on to what.....freedom? If so, they never make it very clear that that's what they're looking for. Maybe just a short time out of war.
As in Blue Spring, Toyoda takes a classic movie theme, and puts his own indelible stamp on it. In one, its the concrete jungle. In this, its the jail break. More than most, he uses little conventional plotting to develop the theme, using his time more to show the characters interacting, which in turn forms what plot there is. But whenever he takes one of these great simple themes....and 9 Souls owes its existence as a homage to The Great Escape....you know that other directors will have handled the themes differently, but none will have managed it with such a masterly mix of humour and pathos.