Halfway through “Dolls,” a pop singer performs an ode to the transforming power of love. While her words are banal, they speak for the film itself.
Drawing from Japan’s tradition of Bunraku puppet theater, it’s filled with a swooning romanticism. In Western culture, this sensibility is long out of fashion, perhaps because AIDS has made the connection between love and death all too literal. (French director Léos Carax is one of the few filmmakers who comes to mind while watching “Dolls.”) To be moved by it, one has to be able to see tragic grandeur in actions that would be foolish or dumb in real life. Love leads one couple to become homeless, another man to blind himself and a woman to waste each Saturday afternoon for decades waiting for an absent boyfriend.
“Dolls” follows three storylines. Without exactly intersecting, they take place simultaneously, with characters occasionally crossing paths. Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has rejected his girlfriend Sawako (Miho Kanno) in order to rise in the corporate world by marrying his boss’ daughter. At their wedding, he learns that Sawako has been driven mad by his betrayal, attempted suicide and suffered permanent brain damage and is institutionalized. Walking out on the ceremony, he drives to the hospital, takes her outside, ties her to him with a red rope and begins an aimless journey on foot. The pair become known as the “bound beggars.”
Aging gangster Hiro (Tastuya Mihashi) recalls his youth, when he enjoyed lunch with his girlfriend, whom he abruptly abandoned, in a park.
Singer Haruna (Kyoko Fukada) is injured in a car accident. With half her face bandaged, she retreats to her mother’s house near the sea. Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige), an obsessed fan, devises a way to meet her, even though Haruna says that she doesn’t want to see anyone.
Takeshi Kitano’s films have always combined humor, violence and sentiment in varying degrees. His best film, “Hana-bi,” synthesized these three elements perfectly. Following it, he made three films, each of which explored a single facet of his interests—playful wit in “Kikujiro,” brutality in “Brother” and love in “Dolls.” Judging from the mediocrity of “Kikujiro” and “Brother” (partially filmed in the U.S., with mixed results), he was better off integrating these qualities. However, “Dolls” is a welcome departure, far more compelling than its bland and impersonal successor, “The Blind Swordsman, Zatoichi.”
As an actor, Kitano connects the dots between Buster Keaton and Clint Eastwood. His films are full of impassive reaction shots, deadpan editing and bursts of sudden violence. His characters’ emotions are rarely expressed verbally, although they’re present all the same. “Dolls” is different. For one thing, Kitano, who in other films directs himself as a stoic, iconic presence, doesn’t appear in it. While the dialogue is sparse, some of the characters are more talkative than their counterparts in earlier films. The colors and costumes are bright. The cinematography takes in the full range of seasonal beauty, from cherry blossoms to snow.
Once an austere director, Kitano now looks like a sensualist. However, the film is so stylized that it feels rather distant from its subject matter. As it progresses, it evokes love’s downside more than its joys.
Women in Kitano films are usually even more silent than men. His sensibility can be distressingly macho, especially given his fondness for violence. In “Dolls,” that ethos is gone. All its bloodshed takes place off screen. It’s hardly a feminist film—women make foolish sacrifices for love. Even so, its male characters act similarly. Nukui makes the worst decisions of all; compared to him, his depressed and scarred heroine is doing quite well. Matsumoto throws away his career when he realizes how much he has hurt Sawako. He even breaks down in tears, hugging her. The film describes a cultural characteristic, not a male or female one.
The Japanese online site “Midnight Eye” opined that “Dolls” wavers between tedious and laughable.” Clearly, its reinvention of melodrama isn’t for everyone. Its sensibility falls halfway between the rest of Kitano’s work and that of classic Hollywood romantics such as Frank Borzage. The beggars’ story is inspired by 17th-century Japanese playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu’s “The Courier for Hell.” What relevance does this old work, which helped romanticize the concept of a lovers’ double suicide in art and life, hold for contemporary spectators? “Dolls” pulls it out of the museum and puts it to the test. Essentially ambivalent but respectful of passion, it both exalts l’amour fou and shows how it can be a destructive burden.
As a subject, love hasn’t yet been exhausted by a million silly songs and stories, but its awesome power has rarely been examined so beautifully.