Dolls adds another surprising level of narrative abstraction to director Takeshi Kitano’s varied body of work, which has ranged from violent genre pieces like Violent Cop (1989) and Sonatine (1993) through quirky comedies to the contemplative and mature Hana-bi (1997). Derived from a 17th century Japanese bunraku puppet play, the new film presents three separate but thematically inter-linked stories of star-crossed lovers. In the first, a young businessman who is being forced to marry the company president’s daughter flees his own wedding when he hears that his true love has attempted suicide. They become the ‘bound beggars’, joined by a length of red rope and wandering the country as the seasons change from spring to winter. Meanwhile, an ageing gangster returns to the park bench where, as a young man, he failed to meet his teenage sweetheart. Forty years later she is there, complete with the lunchbox she promised to prepare for him. And on a lonely private beach, a pop star scarred by a car crash is visited by an obsessive fan, who has blinded himself in order to meet her without seeing her disfigurement.
The self-consciously symbolic imagery fuses with the super-saturated colours of Katsumi Yanagishima’s outstanding cinematography to create images of loss, regret and natural beauty which are moving and elegiac, yet which retain an air of theatrical artificiality. Kitano attempts to create a cinematic equivalent of the bunraku stage aesthetic by reversing the polarities of the theatre, making the dolls the storytellers and reducing the humans to the level of emotional puppets. It’s a decidedly odd conceptual basis for a film, and that Kitano gets away with it almost defies belief.
(Japan, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 113 mins.)

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