Dolls (2002)

Dolls first published by Movie Gazette, in 2003.

Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano is best known in his native Japan as a television comic – but to the West, he is celebrated for the yakuza films which he writes and directs and in which he stars – films like Sonatine, Violent Cop, Hana-Bi and Brother, whose spare visual style and minimalist dialogue, reminiscent of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samouraï), transform criminal violence into transcendental poems on the tragedy and absurdity of human existence. Kitano also recently played the embittered schoolteacher in the dystopian shocker Battle Royale.

Dolls- not to be confused with the 1987 horror film of the same name – represents something of a departure for Kitano. To begin with, while Kitano’s trademark yakuza are present, they are marginal rather than central figures (as is also the case in Kitano’s coming-of-age comedy Kikujiro); and, uniquely, Kitano does not himself appear at all in this film – rather he remains the unseen puppet master in the background.

Dolls is a stately, highly stylised exploration of obsessive love and the seasons, combining cupid’s and time’s arrows. Beginning with a performance of bunraku doll theatre, Dolls attests to the universality of the themes (with strings attached) in this ancient art by tracing them through three carefully interwoven tales set very much in our own times. A man (Hidetoshi Nishijima) whose lover (Miho Kanno) has gone mad when she has heard that he is to marry another ties himself to her with a red clothesline to stop her from harming herself. An elderly, dying yakuza (Tatsuya Mihashi) returns to the park bench where he abandoned a girlfriend in his youth, only to find that she (Chieko Matsubara) is still waiting for him – as are other forces from his past. A beautiful popstar (Kyoko Fukada) refuses to be seen by anyone after she has been disfigured in a car accident, leading her most obsessive fan (Tsutomu Takeshige) to blind himself in order to be able to meet her on her own terms. All three tales depict lovers bound – sometimes literally – together forever in shared tragedy, and confirm love’s strange power to survive change and even death.

Dolls uses exquisite primary colours and floral imagery to depict the passage of the seasons from spring through to winter, and the symbolic transition from birth to death (with the possibility of rebirth). As such it is mesmerisingly beautiful to look at, if seeming occasionally to last almost as long as the year it portrays. Moreover the dreamlike sequences which serve as bridges between one tale and the next are at times overlong and inscrutably obscure. In the end, however, whether in spite, or because, of the film’s aloof stylisation and sparse dialogue, there is something deeply moving to the fate of these lovers, bound by a shared narrative which seems both contemporary and timeless. This is a finely crafted, contemplative film about the unchangeability of love in changing times.

© Anton Bitel