director: “Beat” Takeshi Kitano
starring: Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi, Cheiko Matsubara, Kyoko Fukada, Tsutomu Takeshige
running time: 113 mins
rating: 12

Takeshi Kitano takes a step back with Dolls, focusing purely on direction which gives him far more control of the camera in this touching collection of tales. Escaping his usual palette of blues and greys in a sort of rebellion, he shoots instead in vibrant colour with an incredible attention to detail in what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful films he has crafted.

The focus of the film is on Matsumo [Hidetoshi Nishijima] and Sawako [Miho Kanno], once a happy couple but meddling parents and dreams of success led Matsumo to marry his boss’ daughter, driving Sawako insane. Returning to his real love, the pair now wander (symbolically bound by a red cord) on a journey through the seasons to rediscover what they have lost. The second story is of Hiro [Tatsuya Mihashi], an aging Yakuza boss. Although wealthy and respected, he is alone, for thirty years earlier he abandonned his girlfriend who used to bring him lunch in the park to search for his own dreams of success. Now he is drawn back to that same park. The third tale is of successful pop star Haruna [Kyoko Fukada] who has become a recluse since a disfiguring accident. Nukui [Tsutomu Takeshige], her most biggest fan, has come to prove his devotion. Three tales of undying love, mirrored by the puppets of Bunraku theatre.

The “dolls” of the title are not just the puppets we see in the excerpts from a Bunraku performance at Tokyo’s National Theatre. The characters of each story are also dolls of sorts, subtly and deftly manipulated by the storyteller to weave the tapestry of his tale. The fragility of these characters is highlighted in the way they are changed by events outside of their control, and their struggle in search of love.

Highly stylised in appearance and content, this is more an exploration of its themes of love, changing seasons, and time. However, they are left largely for the viewer to extract from the film rather than offering real ideas or conclusions in what is portrayed. A more serious failing is that the tales are not deep enough to constitute films in themselves, but are never truly woven together. They are really linked by the central theme of not just love, but obsessive love.

Dolls is very, very different from anything Kitano has previously directed. A far cry from the (sometimes excessively) gory Yakuza films fans have come to expect, he still strangely describes this as his most violent film. His reasoning is that the emotional attachments are so much stronger that the results are far more traumatic.

Aesthetically, it looks indescribably stunning throughout, using bold and vivid colours contrasting one another through the seasonal changes and floral imagery. Kitano’s regular cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima in fact does a far better job of capturing the director’s vision of fragile beauty than his own script. Such care is taken in the construction of each shot that it becomes an artistic still life in itself. While it contains magnificent moments that are breathtakingly beautiful or utterly moving, saving the work as a whole, the overall lack of purpose will undoubtedly disappoint many viewers, especially given the exceedingly (albeit intentionally) slow pacing.

If you are able to immerse yourself in the beauty of the film, the experience can be extremely gratifying and from this approach the devastating tragedy of these lovers becomes profoundly moving. The film itself begins to take on a timeless, dreamlike quality through its vividness and sparse dialogue.

Those who expect more of the same from Kitano will certainly be surprised, and probably disappointed, but those who are able to open their mind to a more mature work from this gifted film maker will find a thought-provoking and contemplative piece of art about changing times and changeless love. While it may have benefitted greatly from a tighter ending, visually this is undoubtedly the most beautiful film I have ever seen.