“ Genre: Romance / Theatrical Release: 2002 / Suitable for 12 years and over / Director: Takeshi Kitano / Actors: Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi, Kyôko Fukada, Tsutomu Takeshige ... / DVD released 2003-11-24 at Artificial Eye / Features of the DVD: PAL, Widescreen „
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The sum of three interconnected stories about enduring love, Dolls is loosely based on Japanese Bunraku theatre. I'll be honest; my knowledge of Bunraku is less than comprehensive. It involves large, realistic puppets, certainly, and appears to take on the kind of great, all-encompassing themes as this film. Its director, Takeshi Kitano, better known for his crime films than this more contemplative type of effort, may well be most familiar to English-speaking audiences for his role as the host of super-silly cult Japanese gameshow Takeshi's Castle.
From dark crime films to meditations on endless love by way of hordes of people repeatedly falling in mud; quite a versatile talent, it would seem.
The three strands of the story, though essentially unrelated, overlap periodically throughout the film. The first, and arguably main one tells the story of Matsumoto, a young man who breaks off his engagement to marry the daughter of his company's president. When he discovers that his jilted fiancée has attempted to commit suicide, however, he returns to her side and makes an apparent resolution to atone for his betrayal and remain loyal to her - even though her actions have left her much-changed.
At the same time, we follow another tale of regret and redemption; Yakuza boss Hiro returning home in search of his former girlfriend, the two having not seen each other in decades. The third part of Dolls' look at the many sides of love is a rather odd, twisted vignette. Nukui is a withdrawn, somewhat obsessive young man, and an ardent fan of pop star Haruna. Previously unable to summon up the courage to meet her, when she becomes reclusive and isolated after a car accident, he goes to extremes to set up a rendezvous.
Each strand looks at the highs and lows of love, and presents a bittersweet picture of happiness. Sacrifice is a big theme, and the director is keen to highlights the tragedies of what initially sounds like an uplifting subject.
This isn't a wholly downbeat film either, however. There's a rich thread of comedy that runs through the narrative, both within the stories themselves and in the frequent little interludes provided by two unnamed characters who pop up here and there, making amusing observations. Dolls also has a great deal of heart; the main story is especially touching, with an extremely sweet, meaningful relationship portrayed between the reunited lovers. The second tale, of the aged Yakuza, is also poignant and powerful - again, great credit goes to the actors, who manage to communicate much of their deeply-held emotions through the most subtle looks and actions.
Visually, Dolls is quite stunning, but also rather unusual. Director Kitano pulls out some wonderful landscapes and panoramas in which his story is played out, and manages to extend some of the drama and grand costumes of the opening scenes of Bunraku Theatre into the film. He also, though, has a tendency to hold his shots for an almost indecent amount of time. The same shots stay on the screen long after the characters have disappeared into the distance, or will focus on an insignificant detail while the action takes place off-camera. This is an arresting, unusual style of direction, focusing the attention of the viewer and encouraging them to think about more than the actions on-screen.
However, it's a technique that quickly loses its novelty value and becomes frustrating, clamping irons to the film's slowing feet. A scene towards the end sees the protagonists struggling through a snowy, monotonous landscape for several minutes - walking, walking, then some walking. A sit down, then some walking. Certainly, Dolls isn't one for short attention spans. There's plenty of artistic merit in Kitano's style, but it does get in the way of an otherwise absorbing film at times.
Dolls has been described as "odd but moving" (Marcy Demansky). I'd add one word - beautiful - to that, and I think you've got a pretty accurate summary of the film. Which would make the other seven hundred-odd words of this review somewhat unnecessary. Ah well. It's kind of appropriate, I guess; Dolls isn't about short, convenient or concise answers - rather, Kitano asks that you sit back and soak up the atmosphere of unity and sadness which pervades throughout the film. Unusual in a largely positive way, Dolls is an inventive piece of work with plenty of rewards for those with the patience for it.