Wow. The 2021 film Nine Days, by first time Director Edson Oda, came out of nowhere. Caught me off guard as I knew next to nothing about it except that it was recommended viewing. And for good reason. It’s a high concept film filled with existential concerns about life and suffering. Following a lone arbitor who has the lengthy task of interviewing souls for the potential occupying of a vacant life on earth, a process that takes nine days to conclude, the film digs deep into that central tension- is the chance at living truly worth the potentoal suffering, and what do we do with life when it appears that the bad far outweighs the good.
As part of the interviewing process, part of being deemed capable enough to occupy life and hopefully realize it’s potential, each of the candidates watches a collection of televisions which display the lives and experiences of people down on earth, good and bad. As they absorb themselves in “life” over these nine days they are subsequently asked a series of questions and presented with different scenarios they must answer. Their answers are weighed by the arbitor, who makes the final decision on who gets to move on to life and who simply ceases to exist.
The story’s concern is for the arbitor, who’s own past experience with life seems to haunt him. As he probes the souls each candidating to occupy the role of living, we are given the sense early on that this process is also probing him. Any judgements he can make of the souls becomes a judgment of himself, which forms a big part of the films existential quandry.
What we do know early on as well is that the life that left a vacancy (in their earthly death) seems to have touched on something deeply personal for the Arbitor, leading to an unusual interest in this life’s replacement. What is revealed later on is truly heartbreaking, exposing how it is that we arrive at the film’s central tension. The difference between the souls and the humans comes down to heightened awareness (memory) and emotion (sensory experience), leaving this single point of wonderment- are these human distinctions a blessing or a curse? In some ways maybe they are both, and certainly one observation that rises to the surface is that it depends on who you ask.
Life’s “potential”, it seems, comes from locating the beauty in the tragedy, and allowing that to inform our sense of meaning. The trouble comes when beauty is unable to be reconciled with the tragedy. This is something the film doesn’t quite know how to answer. At best it can merely rest on the worth of the existing few whos experience of life affords them the ability to reflect on the beauty, and further rests on the truth that emerges from seeing life from a broader point of perspective- that some lives will mean more than others, and that taking a chance on our life being meaningful requires us to submit the chance that it might not be to the notion that it could be for a few who come after. The problem, then, comes when we try to make universal statements about life’s worth. Perhaps most personally, as this is a question I have struggled with, the problem comes when trying to answer the question, why live at all when it seems to come down to the luck of the draw, and when seen in the light of others who live more successfully, however we measure that (a poignant observation within the films motif of the judge and jury) we are rendered insignificant, unnecessary and a failure. These questions plagued me when I was wrestling with suicide, and played a big role in why I abandoned what I deemed a necessarily nihilistic secular humanism for the notion of faith. I just could not find a way to answer this essential question- why keep on living- on rational grounds.
What’s curious to me in all of this is noting the way the film brings two points of contested perceptions about the world- that it is full of tragedy, and that it is full of beauty- to a point of crisis, but never truly finds a way to reconicle them together. There is a sense in which the film wants to pull from this a message about ways of seeing- if we only see the bad we miss the good- but it can’t quite address the problem that comes when we only see the good and miss the bad. If premise one stands, and taking the time to see the good is what makes living with the bad meaningful, then it should also stand that premise 2 is equally true. Seeing the bad should challenge the good and raise the question of life’s meaning. I am certain, myself included, that many will find the general arc and message within this film inspiring as it addresses premise 1. And for good reason, as I think premise 1 does represent truth about our existence. The problem is it has nothing to say about premise 2. It can only ignore it and hope that premise 1, if we are lucky enough to live successfully, renders it just inconsequential enough as to not impose it’s rationality on our sense of being. Without some hope that the necessary tension can and will be resolved, such sentiments have more to say about the truth of human experience than they do about meaning itself, which means that truth is then transient, subjective, circumstantial, competitive, and, in many ways, arbitrary, which a more careful reading of this film would expose. And the truth of the way we deal with it is by replacing the reality with necessary lies about its meaningfulness. This of course is the common accusation lobbied against belief in God- that it appeals to the irrational in order to escape the truth of suffering and death- but what is clear from this film is that everyone does this when faced with this tension.
All of that probably sounds like a negative criticism- it’s not. I really loved this film, and it’s message hit me hard. This is simply to say how it is that I processed and interpreted it’s message. For me, the film was a reminder of my own journey towards faith and why that matters within the circumstances of my life. I think the one thing this film seems to miss and so desperately longs for at the same time is a way for our life to truly be able to turn it’s gaze away from our own experience as we make our claims about the truthfulness of living. It imagines doing this in the souls observations of these lives playing out in front of them, but, in purely rational terms, they approach this tension in ways that then cripples their own witness to the truth about what motivates them to want to live in the first place. Which is to say, if my meaning depends on my living successfully, this then is not a truth I can locate in another. Rather, it is an expectation, a condition, even if it feels more like an invitation in the moment. One that is based on a truth about life- seeing and celebrating beauty is the aim of living, and focusing on beauty increases the chance that we will experience it as meaningful- but one in which this truth becomes contingent on our experience of it, which is the measure of a successful life. That is the only means by which it can become transcendent, the problem being that we are then left with ourselves and our circumstance and the simple message that life is worth taking a chance on because it holds potential to be meaningful for the few that are lucky enough to experience it this way.
In the scope of the film, memory becomes crucial to this point of perspective. Memory is the means by which build our story in particular ways, and those memories emerge from our experiences. Take away our memories and we cease to become us. We cease to feel in the ways that humanity is capable of. At the same time, there is a crucial point in this film where it needs to submit that we are who we are even without our memories. This word of truth is offered to one of the souls vying for the chance to live. That they will forget ever being in this place and competing for this opportunity is said to not nulify the fact they they will still be them, that you will still be you. This word is afforded to them as a way of justifying the glimpses they get of the human experience with all of its varied emotions. The question is, what has the power to say this to us, to endow us with our given sense of meaning? What has the power to lay claim to the value of our life before we live it and regardless of our successful living of it? That is a question worth pondering over the course of this film. I think the Director senses this question is there, lingering and festering and gnawing at the arc of its story, but can’t quite figure out what to do with it when trying to filter this through the reality of our finite existence. To me, this is evidence of a longing that is embedded within our spirits, something we can’t always understand, but something that continually has the power to point beyond us and our experiences, beyond oursleves to a transcendent Truth, a grander narrative that enfolds this existence. A Truth that doesn’t deny or ignore the tension of existence, but which looks to speak to it in ways that feel intuitively aware of what is not right and what we hope will be made right. That our ability to lay claim to beauty is not contingent on the trajectory of our indivdiual lives or the success of a small portion of humanity is, for me, a liberating thought waiting to break into and shed light on this films concluding image.