A lyrical reflection on overpowering love, selfish choices, loss, abandonment and atonement, “Dolls” translates the tragic beauty of traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet theater onto a human canvas with haunting results. Back on firmer ground after his problematic last two features, “Brother” and “Kikujiro,” idiosyncratic director Takeshi Kitano at times overindulges his weakness for sentimentality. But despite an excessively meandering final act, the drama’s three intertwined stories have a cumulative impact, their affecting sadness matched by meticulously composed visual poetry. Sophisticated arthouse niches should be receptive.
Partly inspired by the operatic Bunraku plays of Monzaemon Chikamatsu, Kitano’s film opens with a performance by Tokyo’s National Theater of the 17th century author’s story of doomed lovers, “The Courier for Hell.” The arresting artifice of the wooden puppets in ceremonial costume, backed by music and sung narration, segues directly to their flesh-and-blood doppelgangers — a couple known as the “bound beggars.” Tied together by a red cord, they roam through streets, parks and countryside in a journey spanning all four seasons.
Backtracking, the film reveals how Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) bowed to parental pressure, breaking his engagement to Sawako (Miho Kanno) to become a “Cinderella boy” and marry the daughter of his company boss. But Matsumoto flees the wedding ceremony when he learns Sawako has gone mad after attempting suicide. Chastened for letting ambition overrule his heart, he literally harnesses himself to the helpless girl to keep her safe, their silent wandering recalling Kitano’s deaf-mute surfer couple in “A Scene at the Sea.”
Having reached a time of reflection in his life, aging yakuza boss Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) ponders his now-vulnerable position within the criminal world and thinks back with regret to his younger life. Thirty years earlier, he left his factory job and his devoted girlfriend (Chieko Matsubara), promising to come back for her when he became a success, but instead got caught up in his illicit career. Returning to the park where they met, he finds her still waiting on a bench with his lunch each Saturday.
Final strand concerns Haruna (Kyoko Fukada), a phenomenally successful pop star surrounded at a safe distance by legions of fans. Disfigured in an auto accident, she withdraws from the world, refusing to be seen. She makes an exception for Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige), a lonely man who supplies drastic proof of his fanatical devotion, but becomes a target for the envy of a rival fan.
Perhaps due as much to the flashes of Haruna’s bubble-gum pop act as anything else, this third story seems a slightly awkward fit with the serene melancholy that reigns in the others. However, its themes of devotion, sacrifice and overwhelming love as an extremist act, both unreasoning and unreasonable, are constants in all three stories, neatly interwoven in Kitano’s script. While the drama’s emotional observations could have been brought together more cohesively, its sorrowful mood resonates beyond the end credits, allowing key themes to continue to gel.
Aside from Joe Hisashi’s syrupy score and some rather obvious symbolism, principal flaw is the protracted concluding stretch in which Sawako and Matsumoto drift through a winter landscape toward death, increasingly embodying the intercut Bunraku puppets that glide across the stage. Beautiful and plaintive as they are, these scenes push the director’s approach of poetic austerity almost to exasperation and will try the patience of some audiences.
Landscape has always figured significantly in Kitano’s films, and never more so than here. Urban locations are cleverly stripped back to seem like little more than theater sets. Park and woodland settings are used like painterly stage backdrops, emblazoned with fiery autumnal colors, delicate spring blossoms or blanketed with snow. Action within these subtly stylized compositions is similarly pared down, mixing realism with theatricality and limned by solemn, mainly inexpressive actors who convey their characters’ emotions with quiet economy.
The film’s carefully calibrated use of color and design carries through to the unconventional shapes and softly draped lines of fashion guru Yohji Yamamoto’s distinctive, faux pauvre costumes.