Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
In Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” a poetic biography of the author and the American’s search for inner self, Whitman conveys that the American may search endlessly for their meaning and place in the Universe, but they ultimately can only resemble the Universe, as we always have (“for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”). The poem is the author himself, trying to explain the metaphor, but the metaphor is born the same as him and belongs to the Universe. It is intangible. “What is the grass?” How do you answer the child, who knows the metaphor and the meaning just as well as you? We cannot define the metaphor without understanding that the metaphor has always been our own mortal truth. That we were born into it, same as the grass, and that every atom of our own being, and that of the grass, are produced from the same soil. We say what the grass is, hoping that it brings us back to this connection, unravelling endlessly in time and space. If we want to experience the world, we must first understand and embody it. In a rousing scene of poetic expression, in Edson Oda’s Nine Days, Winston Duke launches into Whitman’s final canto: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.” Duke unlocks the whole story of humanity and our borderless eternal connection, all with the ending of one poem. Then the film invites you to reevaluate everything that came before the ending, to see what it means about the birth of man, and what we must understand about life, if we’re about to live with intention and really know what is important about living.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) asked the same questions in a different order. In that film, after a person dies, they have seven days to determine what memory they will hold onto for eternity and remember their lives by. Kore-eda employed cinema’s most crucial tactic. It used the series of frozen frames, all pieced together into a moving picture, to stop time. He interviewed dozens of Japanese citizens and presented his high-concept art piece within a documentary context. In his feature debut — and it’s astonishing this a debut — Edson Oda extrapolates Kore-eda’s themes of life after death, and does a thoughtful rearranging of that film’s structure. Rarely does a movie explore life before birth. It might beg the question, how do you even visualize that? Oda has only simple answers, to frame it as a connected process, and a trial, a purgatory-before-life, wherein applicants wishing to be born must answer some theoretical questions and choose what memory they wish to experience in their lifetimes over the course of nine days.
Nine Days is a continuation of the themes of Whitman’s poem and Kore-eda’s movie-poem. It asks us to think more deeply about our interconnectedness to the Earth. It’s a film that not only wants to engage us philosophically, asking what it means to be born, but also wants to engage our own journey. What does it mean that we’ve experienced everything that is necessary to get us to where we are? Are we living with an appropriate intentionality and understanding our process, born from the earth and put back into it, and our ability do something materially meaningful with the small time we’ve been allotted?
Winston Duke is our spirit guide. Has there been better recent casting? Has anyone put in such a nuanced and intricately human performance as Duke has done here? He has never gotten such central and meaty casting and now that we’ve seen him fully enhanced in that role, we could hardly imagine him fading into the background of any picture. He’s accompanied by an always-on Zazie Beetz, an actress who always impresses in any capacity, but also grows to meet the film’s high-concept stature, with the pure excellence of her own performance. Benedict Wong is a standout while Bill Skarsgård and Tony Hale also give complimentary performances. It is a nice well rounded cast and all of their characters mean something unique and metaphorical to the story and what it means to be born.
The poetic license stops just short of pure visual expression. It does not always capture the wondrous and engaging thoughtfulness of the central concept. It is a moving picture, eventually, but you’ll have to really stay with Oda for a while and trust his process. The core idea demands further returns to the picture. It wants us to take the words of Walt Whitman, and then reconsider the context of the film. It wants to show us something more through our own thought about the film. That is a deeper avenue of thought than any American picture recently released. It’s effectively Pixar’s Soul (2020) for the more thoughtfully engaged moviegoer, a more progressive and interesting play on all those same concepts, without the intense visual splendor of the animated what-it-means-to-be-born movie. Oda has created a significant work keyed into ageless concepts of what it means to be alive. Just remember, if you fail to find exactly what you’re looking for the first time, keep encouraged. Stay curious and more will be revealed.