We are each the main character in our own story. And in life’s more chaotic moments, it’s easy to think we’re living through our own TV show. Moments of high drama flatten our spirits. Our embarrassments function like screwball comedy. Moments of unspeakable irony make us wonder who’s turning the screws. Each day is a new episode in our lives, and in those idle moments, we wonder who’s watching.
Nine Days puts that concept into an entirely new context, with every stray moment of our lives playing on fuzzy glass tube television sets. Not only that, every moment is recorded on VHS tapes that are subsequently stored in metal filing cabinets dedicated to our time on Earth. On the evidence of the TV footage, the film takes place in something resembling present day, but the ethereal realm seems heavily reliant on analog technology. At least that’s the case for Will (Winston Duke), whose modest home in the middle of an open desert landscape is replete with symbols of a bygone era, much of which he reclaims from the scrap heap not far from the house. One wonders if the junkyard is the Real World Reject Pile, or if Will refuses modern advancements by choice, as if the technological evolution causes a human devolution.
Not that Will would reveal that much about himself up front; he’s mysterious by nature, and, perhaps, by necessity. For his modest lifestyle belies his crucial job: selecting which souls will be born into the world to live human lives. Nine Days ponders the unknowable in-between, that space between birth and death, between the world we know and…whatever, if anything, governs that world. Will offers no answers, referring to himself only as a “cog in the wheel,” which represents an uncomfortable convergence between the notions of an otherworldly deity and the Blind Watchmaker theory. The “soul application” process does not appear to be overseen by any grandiose divinity, but the selection is anything but “natural” – Will, in essence, controls who is permitted to be born into the world.
He’s not the only one granted that power, we learn. In fact, there may be countless similarly empowered beings out there in this unidentified celestial plane. Their task: whenever a human life ends, interview a group of souls to fill “the position,” as Will refers to it. The full process lasts nine days, during which the candidates are submitted to various scenario-based tests to gauge their reason and emotion, as well as their capacity to cognize that reason and emotion.
Questions – one could refer to them as “holes” – abound. Where do these souls materialize from, and where do they go if they aren’t selected? And with all the death in the world, if every earthly death triggers a new soul selection process, how is this not a breakneck, 24-hour-a-day enterprise? What about the age-old debate between nature and nurture? If our lives are unilaterally decisioned based on our soul’s perceived real-world efficacy, do we not, then, enter the world as a pre-destined being?
Edson Oda’s screenplay casually ignores those potential rabbit holes, which is forgivable since Oda isn’t attempting to offer logistical answers so much as ask questions about the depths and reaches of empathy – not just in each individual soul, but in realms beyond the one we know. Oda also directs, in a feature film debut of impressive authority. His style is gentle and thoughtful, evoking the sort of humanity reminiscent of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After Life, in which the deceased were given a week to select one memory to keep with them for eternity. Memory plays a key role in Nine Days as well – the memories we cherish as well as those we wish we could forget, and the influence of those memories on how we interact with our environment.
From Oda’s point-of-view, that humanity extends even to those who control our entry into the world. Will maintains his reclusive mystery because he fears shedding it will put undue influence on his choices, but any attempt at objectivity is futile. He was once human, and so retains all human tendencies, including the cautious desire to protect these souls from entering a world so fraught with hate and fear and violence as the one we inhabit. For all its heady conceptualizing, Nine Days is about that wondrous and infuriating fallibility of humanity – confronting our failures, reconciling our fears, and seeking to achieve a semblance of psychic and spiritual balance in a world that seems dislodged from its proper celestial orbit.