Dolls (2004) Movie Review

“Dolls” is a film which represents a change of pace for legendary Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, a man best known in the West for his violent, often abstract gangster epics. “Dolls” represents the first time Kitano has chosen not to appear in a self-directed effort in 6 years, a decision which may well have been made to help distance audiences from the unavoidable associations made with his usual roles. This was probably a good idea, as “Dolls” is a very different proposition indeed, a collection of three stories, all of which are meditations on the crueler side of love, and the bitter emotions of guilt and blind devotion which so often drive human passion. Although there is some violence, and the inevitable inclusion of a Yakuza-themed sub plot, the film is a moving work of fragile beauty, with some truly stunning imagery, and which ranks amongst the director’s best.

The film begins with scenes of ‘bunraku’ puppetry, an ancient form of storytelling from Japan, which Kitano goes on to use several times as a thematic link, showing the characters at the mercy of their all-consuming hearts. The narrative takes the form of an at times surreal triptych, starting with the tale of the ‘bound beggars’, two silent lovers who wander the countryside, tied together with a long red piece of rope. As we learn more about the events which brought them to this sad destiny, the film gradually begins the second tale, that of an aging Yakuza boss haunted by a lost love from his past, and offered what seems to be a second chance. This in turn leads into the final story, which centres upon a once beautiful pop singer, disfigured by an accident, who comes into contact with an obsessive, lovesick fan.

The narrative is skilfully woven, and Kitano (who also wrote the script) manages to make the plot well structured, yet almost dreamlike, and the three tales at times feel more like allegories than anything else. This approach lends itself perfectly to the film’s thoughtful, explorative nature, and manages to be both intelligent and refreshingly open without ever sliding into pretension or artistic incomprehensibility. Most importantly, although the characters are somewhat sketchily written, having the overall impression of being cipher-like puppets, their emotions are truly heartfelt.

As a result, the film is very moving and incredibly sad, as Kitano allows cruel fate, as well as the weaknesses of the characters to bring tragedy crashing down, time after time. The most rewarding aspect of “Dolls” is that Kitano gives no easy answers, or indeed clear signs as to what the viewer is meant to be taking from the characters and their sad destinies. There are no emotional cheap shots or obvious resolutions, and this lack of moral judgment gives plenty of stimulating interpretive freedom.

In addition to such emotional resonance, “Dolls” is visually stunning, and the work of cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima (who also worked with the director on “Zatoichi” and “Sonatine”, as well as the likes of “Battle Royale”) is comparable at times to that of Christopher Doyle’s work in “Hero”. The Japanese countryside is brought to life with a wonderful array of muted colours, which at times flare into passionate explosions in a way which truly enthralls. The landscape is treated like an artist’s canvas, and the film’s beauty is such that it almost becomes a piece of visual poetry. Kitano utilises this splendour, harnessing its power by imbuing it with a complex symbolism which reflects the emotions of the characters, often in the absence of dialogue.

Unfortunately “Dolls” is a film which also has its flaws, chief amongst which is the slow pace. Although the proceedings are thoughtful and engaging, there are inevitably long stretches where little happens. Whilst the film’s visuals ensure that these intervals are far from being worthless, the plot and characters do at times feel somewhat forgotten. Along with the film’s abstract musings, “Dolls” is likely to disappoint many of the director’s regular fans, or those expecting explosive action. Although there is some violence in the film, they generally take place off screen, and Kitano chooses instead to focus on their aftermaths, and the emotional suffering they cause, rather than on the violent acts themselves.

For those who enjoy thoughtful, challenging cinema, “Dolls” is highly recommended, as a film of great beauty and sensitivity which will also challenge both the heart and mind. A hugely rewarding and brave move for Kitano, 2002’s “Dolls” serves to cement his status not only as a film maker of high repute, but indeed as an artist who deserves recognition beyond the cult following he has amassed in the West for his gangster films.

Takeshi Kitano (director) / Takeshi Kitano (screenplay)
CAST: Miho Kanno …. Sawako
Hidetoshi Nishijima …. Matsumoto
Tatsuya Mihashi …. Hiro
Chieko Matsubara …. Ryoko
Kyoko Fukada …. Haruna Yamaguchi

Buy Dolls on DVD