Written and directed by Takeshi Kitano.
Starring Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi,
Chieko Matsubara, Kyoko Fukada and Tsutomu Takeshige.
Running time: 113 min.
Dolls is a beautiful, clever, original stylization with just the right touch of subtle irony characteristic of other Kitano’s works.
There are three stories in the movie, all of them concerning love, always futile, tragic and pierced with the feeling of loneliness.
The central story is about a young couple, Matsumoto and Sawako. They are engaged to be married, but Matsumoto is persuaded by his parents to marry the daughter of his boss. As a dutiful son, the young man respects his parents’ request: they worked hard to get him through college and give him a good chance at life.
At the wedding Matsumoto is informed that Sawako attempted suicide. She survived, but lost her mind and is now in a semi-vegetative state. Matsumoto leaves his new bride at the altar and drives to take Sawako from the hospital. He doesn’t return to his family and job, but instead the couple begins a long and seemingly aimless journey. Unable to keep Sawako from wandering off, Matsumoto binds them together by a red rope, reminding of the red thread that connects lovers’ souls.
As Sawako and Matsumoto journey, silent and detached, through the scenes of the four seasons, they occasionally pass by the other characters, providing a visual connection for the other stories.
The second story is about Hiro, an aged yakuza boss. As a young man, he left his girlfriend, Ryoko, as he set out to seek his fortune. Ryoko promised that she will wait for him in Saitama Park every Saturday with a lunch box, until he returns.
One Saturday, a sick and lonely man, whose company is only his bodyguards and a doctor, Hiro returns to the park and finds that Ryoko still waits for him there, keeping her promise. He is too ashamed to reveal himself, but Ryoko lets him to sit next to her, until her fiancé arrives. They meet every Saturday, and one day Ryoko asks Hiro if he would like to share the lunch with her. Is there a promise of a second chance?
The third story is about Nikui, a street traffic officer living a lonely life. His only joy is a young pop idol, Haruna. Nikui’s apartment is her shrine, with Haruna’s pictures all over the walls. All his spare time Nikui spends listening to her music or in a crowd of fans, waiting for a glimpse of the star.
One day Nikui learns that Haruna had a car accident and lost an eye. The disfigured pop-star withdraws from the public, unwilling to be seen by anybody. There is only one way for Nikui to meet Haruna again: with her image clear and undamaged in his mind, Nikui cuts out his own eyes. But will this sacrifice get him closer to his idol?
Kitano, a brilliant narrator, tells the three stories in a simple, even minimalistic way. They are modern fairy tales, urban legends that need certain suspension of disbelief in order to be appreciated properly.
In Dolls you won’t find any profound characterization or character development. The characters are nothing more than “human puppets” in a stylized puppet play, reinventing the ancient art of the Bunraku theater.
As in a classic puppet play, the faces, the costumes, the movements of the puppets are always the same, life-like, yet merely a convention. What makes them alive, what brings the emotion into the action, is the audience’s ability of empathy and imagination.
The film develops very slowly. The stories, although simple, are not presented in a linear chronologic order, intertwining and creating the feeling of simultaneousness.
All this can look as an unnecessarily thin-spread and pretentious plot. The atmosphere, however, soon captivates you in a meditative dream-like experience, in which Kitano, through the rich imagery, makes us feel, rather than understand, the loneliness and melancholy of his characters, the fleeting beauty of nature, the futility of love and, above all, the somber sense of doom.
Kitano stages for his audience a spectacular show. The scenery of the movie is breathtakingly beautiful, a work of Katsumi Yanagishima (A Scene at the Sea, Sonatine, Kikujiro). The costumes designed by Youji Yamamoto are colorful and unrealistic, reminiscent of a classic Bunraku attire. The cinematography in Dolls was both praised for its beauty and scoffed at for being too iconic and “pretty”, balancing on the verge of kitch.
Yet the luxurious setting helps Kitano to create the feeling of a traditional Bunraku stage, where the bright colors and conventional images stimulate the spectators’ imagination, helping them to take in the atmosphere surrounding the wooden actors and conveying the feelings of the characters.
The spring cherry blossoms are tender and fragile as the first love experience, followed by separation from the loved ones (Sawako, Ryoko). The vibrant richness of autumn roses as if mocks Nikui, who deprived himself of the beauty of nature, committing to memory an illusive image.
Sawako and Matsumoto progress through the scenery of the four seasons, with its iconic attributes: the tender pink cherry blossoms in the spring, the sparkling blue sea in the summer, the blood-red maple leaves in the autumn. The cycle is bound to end with the blazing whiteness of winter, the color of death in the Japanese tradition.
Unlike usual criminal dramas by Kitano, the movie lacks hard action and violent scenes, yet the cruelty of these simple stories is stunning.
According to Kitano:
“It’s not guns that kill protagonists. It’s something like fate, inevitability or condensed emotions that become like a single bullet and shoot right though the characters.”
The inevitability, the doom is a silent puppeteer driving the characters towards the tragic end. But first of all, it is their own choices, their obsessions that lead the protagonists away from the loved ones, from the life that could be, if not happy, than less disastrous.
This theme is foreshadowed by the opening scene from Chikamatsu’s “The Messenger to Hell”, in which a courtesan Umegawa begs her lover, Chubei, not to act recklessly for her sake. Yet Chubei, a messenger who was robbing his clients, instead of returning the stolen money uses it buy Umegawa out of the brothel. They elope together but end up caught by the police and Chubei’s creditors and are to be executed.
Kitano, though not openly judgmental of his characters, offers a glimpse of irony in the situation. For instance, Hiro promises Ryoko to come back when he is “well dressed and with money”. Years later he keeps his promise as a rich and powerful yakuza boss, not even recognized by his aged love.
Each story can be viewed as either a tragedy or a farce, which adds the movie a whole new dimension.
Dolls is certainly not a typical “Kitano movie”. It is a puzzle, a game of associations offered us by the director. Similarly to classic Bunraku plays, it involves a spectator in a unique, theatrical experience, inviting us not only to observe but also participate, using our imagination and admiring the stage and the set, listening to a captivating story, both modern and ancient as an old legend.