Color, 2003, 120m. / Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda / Starring Kee, Takuji Suzuki, Mame Yamada, Koji Chihara, Ryuhei Matsuda / Artsmagics (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD2.0

An engaging and wholly offbeat jailbreak yarn, 9 Souls begins with the arrival of newbie Michiru (Matsuda) arriving behind bars to serve time for killing his father. One of the older and more revered inmates, the Counterfeit King (Jun Kunimura), tells him and eight other inmates about a mysterious treasure, "the key to the future," located at the Mt. Fuji Elementary School inside a time capsule interred beneath a flagpole. Soon the great criminal minds bond together to plot an escape beneath the prison through the sewer system, after which they swipe a truck (while posing as martial arts students) and hit the road to find their destiny. However, not all goes as planned as their treasure and their own personalities conspire to swerve them far off-course.

This subdued but stylish film, a novel crime-and-punishment study from director Toyoda (Blue Spring), is consistently surprising and loaded with amusing character flourishes, particularly involving a midget doctor dedicated in a truly physical way to a comely stripper. The film nicely balances humor (including that can't-miss gag, manly convicts in drag, not to mention a bit involving a handy flock of sheep that would never cut it in an American film), drama, and action, the latter delivered in sparing but effective jolts of violence (particularly during the hauntingly ambiguous finale).

Artsmagic's anamorphically enhanced DVD looks quite nice, befitting for a film of recent vintage. Though a handful of scenes in the second half are shot in a deliberately stylized, color-drenched fashion, the bulk of the film has a bright, sun-drenched look filled with green and white, all effectively rendered here. The surround audio fares well, with music and gunshots offering some jolting stereo effects.

The chain-smoking Toyoda appears in the two biggest supplemental features, a pair of featurettes (38 and 6 minutes respectively, designated as "Interview 1" and "Interview 2" and boasting some incredibly unflattering lighting) in which he discusses the making of the film (in Japanese with optional English subtitles), including its origins and the various ins and outs involving in bringing the story to the screen. Also included are bios and filmographies for the director and nine leads, the Japanese trailer, and a replica of the original promotional booklet.

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