Matsumoto (Nishijima) is pressed by his family to leave his girlfriend Sawako (Kanno) and marry for the benefit of his own career. Sawako attempts suicide and Nishijima feels guilty and tries desperately to mend the consequences of his decision.
Hiro (Mihashi), a Yakuza leader, remembers the woman he left 30 years ago (Matsubara), when he chose to pursue a life of fame and fortune. When they said farewell, she told him she would keep bringing him lunch every Saturday to the same garden bench.
Nuke (Tageshige), a traffic controller, is a fanatic admirer of pop singer Haruna (Fukada) who, on the aftermath of an accident, isolates herself from the world and from her fans.
For his last film Kitano Takeshi got inspiration in traditional stories from the Japanese puppet theatre, Bunraku, presenting three situations of pure romantic abstractionism, intertwined in a story that flows evenly, over constant changes in the scenery and in the characters, captured by the lens frame. The main story, also the one more emotionally prominent, is about a mysterious couple wandering through streets and gardens bound together by a rope. Such as in the stories involving the other two couples, the narrative uses flashback effective in rhythm, although it seems a little slow at first, concluding each one of them with melancholic returns to an irrecoverable past, in contrast with the bitter evolution of each situation in the present time.
The first moments in the film, after the introduction at the Buranku theatre, remind us, although just superficially or momentarily, another film by Kitano outside the Yakuza genre, the (maybe for that) not so popular A Scene at the Sea/Ano Natsu, Ichiban Shizukana Umi (1992). That resemblance refers mainly to some scenes and to the fact that the dialogue is somewhat irrelevant during a great part of the main story or segment: in the 1992 film, this is a direct consequence from the fact that the protagonists are deaf and dumb; here, there are other factors directly connected to the development of the relationship, in the fist moments of the film. We are also not far from Hana-Bi (1997), regarding the relation between Nishi (Kitano) and his wife (Kishimoto Kayoko), during the journey that both take in the final segment of the film. In either case, Kitano tells the story using sound and visual elements, minimizing the importance of dialogue and emphasizing glances (ours and those of his protagonists). There is what one may consider a small reference to A Scene at the Sea in Dolls during a flashback in which we see a surf board (the characters in that film were surf lovers). In any case, "scenes at the sea" are persistent in the Nipponese director's films.
If there are films at which you can point your finger and, without any prejudice, call "Art" – like that, with a very well nourished A –, Dolls may certainly be one of the accused. At least it is a kind of "art" more fascinating than those resulting from filming methods and storytelling that use "anti-commercial" narrative structures, more so for the contempt they show for the label and the market than for the existence of a story asking to be told or of a creative process based on the filmmakers talents or on the quality of a text. Dolls is a film working more on an emotional level than on an intellectual one – there are no puzzles or knots to untie –, requiring only that we lean back and watch it with our eyes wide open. The introductory moments leave us hovering, but from the moment when the cycle of the first story is closed – which does not end, but it is merely clarified – we get stuck to the evolution of this relationship as well as of the other ones.
Kanno Miko (Sawako) and Nishijima Hidetoshi (Nishijima).
The photography is outstanding and to put it like this almost seems too easy. But any other comment seems to me at this moment to be utterly redundant. The images by Kitano's regular collaborator, Yanagijima Katsumi, follow the seasons in Japan and the primary colours appear to come out of the screen, mainly those of nature and of the remarkable gowns by stylist Yamamoto Yoji, as we watch Sawako and Matsumoto wandering. The image's clarity and beauty, more than in other cases, deserve a good movie theatre with an according cared focus, as it happened in the Auditori, the main screen at the Sitges Festival. The music, again by Hisaishi Jo – Kitano's collaborator since A Scene at the Sea and Miyazaki's since Kaze no Tani no Nausicäa (1994) – follows moments of absolute visual ecstasy and attends, rather than conditions or conducts to, the moments of more emotional height.
Dolls is a film as beautiful as it is tragic and sad. Kitano is not known for caring about "Hollywood endings" in his films. The conclusions are felt as natural and as the closing of a cycle, even if they do not leave a smile on our lips. The most popular Kikujiro no Natsu (1999) or the silly Getting Any?/Minna Yatteruka (1994) would be the most obvious exceptions.
This is not a film to leave in the theatre, as we move along to somewhere else; it comes with us, refusing to vanish away in our memories. There are fragments, concepts and images that will last indefinitely, although isolated and out of context, and our perception towards them will only change the day we go back to the film and we put them in their appropriate places. In Dolls the narrative evolves alongside the seasons of the year and the ending does not happen in spring.
Dolls is, in my opinion, the best of Kitano's film – overcoming Hana-Bi –, and it seems to emerge again, at least partially, of the director's will to not getting typified and to oppose any expectations: after Hana-Bi, and tired of questions about the use of violence in his films, he chose a more popular tone in Kikujiro no Natsu (1999), where the violence does not exist, and then returned with the brutal Brother (2001).
Dolls, however, cannot be seen as a complete surprise amidst Kitano's filmography, whose best work do not thrive through plain out of context or entertaining violence nor can be related to typical gangster/yakuza films. Throughout his work, before Dolls, there is an unusual sensibility to emotionally intense drama (remarkable in A Scene at the Sea and Hana-Bi). Dolls presents us a refinement in Kitano's visual language, at the same time it shows a more sober and plain narrative structure, freed of redundancies and conflict, where the dialogue assumes the mere role of separating different scenes.
Those who follow Kitano or those who sit before the screen without any expectations – without thinking of the director's "action films" – may be offered one of the greater cinema experiences of their lives. Dolls is a poem about impossible obstacles on the way to love, in a platonic and abstract perspective, where there is no room for physical contact (either love or violence – almost a must in the so-called commercial cinema): for example, the beautiful and symbolic method in which the union between the two main characters is celebrated and the logic with which it binds itself (almost cruelly) onto the narrative structure. It is also a film about the sacrifice of one before the indifference of "the other" and how certain mistakes are irreparable and can cloud our future forever: two male characters choose glory or success instead of love; the other takes too far his desire to come closer to intangible love.
There are many forms of violence and Kitano knows how to illustrate them, sometimes perhaps with brutal coldness, simply because violent blood spilling is a direct consequence of the actions committed by his characters and there is no reason for the camera to resign from its obligations at those moments. Dolls is a violent film for other reasons. Because it holds us firmly to the images on the screen and binds us, heart and mind, to the characters that dwell there, drags us alongside them and then, when the credits emerge onscreen, leaves us, alone and wrecked, still glued to the chair, helpless before any Earth gravity related phenomena. There are those who feel shocked and offended by the graphic violence of a film such as Ichi the Killer, but Dolls, although at a different light, is a much more violent film.
Images kindly provided by Office Kitano.