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By Mariko McDonald | December 28, 2004

After a chance opportunity allows them to escape from prison, 9 convicts hijack a bright pink camper from a horrible techno junkie and set about trying to recover the lost treasure of their tenth companion who was carted away shortly before their escape. What on the surface seems like another typically crude but well-timed Japanese comedy subtly shifts and the tragedies that have been building for the last hour suddenly come to a head and explode in a poignant, violent essay on lives filled with regret and the need for redemption in everyone.

For his fourth feature, director Toshiaki Toyoda has created a poignant masterpiece of contradictions. It is both gentle and violent, funny and sad, sympathetic but not above rendering judgment. Through excellent performances, Toyoda creates a rag tag assortment of murderers, druggies and thugs who the audience genuinely cares for, but never more than we should. Particularly good is Ryuhei Matsuda as a young shut-in who murdered his father and who serves as the existential focus of much of the film.

The comic mayhem is that typically Japanese brand of absurdity best exemplified by the work of Beat Takeshi. However Toyoda’s direction is less overtly arty than Mr. Beat and instead merely artistic. There are surrealist flourishes such as a Tokyo that withers to dust, clouds that change shape upon command and four leaf clovers that appear by the field full. Also worth noting is the pumpin’ Brit-poppy score that keeps things moving towards their inevitably tragic endings.

Yet, throughout all this violence and sadness, there is a genuine air of hopefulness making the film that much more compelling. A funny, engaging and strangely enjoyable film, “9 Souls” is a rare experience and one not worth missing.

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