Dolls is a kind of reverse Bunraku film – a Japanese puppet film where the puppets become the spectators and the humans act out three dramatic and poetic tales of love, loss and tragedy.
Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is pushed into an arranged marriage with the daughter of the boss, but when he hears that the girlfriend he has jilted, Sawaka (Miho Kanno) has attempted to commit suicide, he leaves his bride-to-be at the altar. He takes Sawaka from the hospital where she is being looked after and together they wander the country. To keep the mentally disturbed girl from wandering off, he keeps her attached to him with a red silk rope. The couple become known as the ‘bound beggars’ and as the seasons pass by they come across other similar tragic love stories.
An aging yakuza boss (Tatsuya Mihashi) visits the park where he last saw the girlfriend he abandoned as a young man in the pursuit of success. The woman (Chieko Matsubara), now much older also, still keeps her promise and waits for him on the same park bench every Saturday with a lunch she has made for him, hoping that one day he will come back to her.
A glamorous pop-star Haruna Yamaguchi (Kyoko Fukada) is disfigured in a car accident and goes into hiding from the world. Her biggest fan, Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige) blinds himself when he hears of the accident.
There is a delightful, typically Japanese ambiguity to the characters and their situation. The characters are not lovers whose lives have been ruined by some strange twist of fate – they themselves are responsible for their own predicaments and the circumstances that they are faced with. Their actions have all been taken of their own freewill and mistakes have been made through their own egotism and vanity. What they can never do is recover what has been lost and they know this – this is their tragedy. Instead of looking back on their mistake with regret, each of the characters attempts to make reparation in a strange way. The gestures are false and completely pointless, motivated perhaps more by an attempt to regain face and dignity than through any selfless action. Yet we are being asked to and can’t help but sympathise with the beautiful, poetic penitence that they each put themselves through, facing up to their past mistakes. Not since In The Mood For Love has there been a film that was so devastatingly simple, yet so painfully beautiful.
The photography in the film is breathtaking. Each season is hyper-stylised – a blaze of colours, rich and warm, marks out each of the seasons depicted in the film. The film’s transfer to DVD bears this out superbly with a perfect balance of brightness and contrast letting the colours dominate. The image is sharp and clear - impressively so, with only the slightest hint of grain which does no harm to the film whatsoever. I noticed a faint judder when there was movement in scenes at the start and end of the film and some minor signs of compression artefacts, but otherwise there isn’t a mark on the print and the film looks colourful and sharp.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0. I don’t understand Artificial Eye’s policy with soundtracks. They make every effort to ensure that every release is presented anamorphically where possible at the correct aspect ratio, yet they don’t apply the same standard to the soundtrack. Several other international releases of the film have the original surround track presented on a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. I don’t know if presenting it in 2.0 makes much of a difference to the film but it is surely not as the director intended. This isn’t the only reason for the low scoring for the soundtrack however. The soundtrack is ever so slightly out of sync for about the first half-hour of the film, fixing itself by the middle, only to go out of sync again towards the end. This is the third Artificial Eye release in the last few months to have lip-sync problems – Russian Ark and Springtime In A Small Town also suffered from similar problems to a greater or lesser degree. It is not terribly noticeable here, but it should be spotted and corrected before a DVD is released – quality control is failing somewhere along the line here.
English subtitles read well and are optional.
There are a number of good interviews among the extra features on the disc. The first Takeshi Kitano interview (15:23) covers the inspiration of the film, its Bunraku connection and the film’s style. The second Takeshi Kitano interview (14:26) focuses on the characters’ motivations and general questions on themes in the film. Kitano’s answers are invariably short, but to the point and he makes a number of interesting observations. There are also short interviews with the ‘bound beggar’ actors Miho Kanno (03:55) and Hidetoshi Nishijima (03:43) who talk about their characters and demonstrate their complete awe for the director. There is also an interview with fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto (10:06) who created the costume designs that give the film much of its character. Some useful text features provide some background information on Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653 - 1724), the most famous author of Bunraku plays and some background information on Bunraku puppets and performance. There is also a Takeshi Kitano Biography providing a look at one of the most colourful and diverse talents in international cinema. A Theatrical Trailer (01:38), letterboxed, is also included among this strong and relevant selection of extra features.
Kitano continues to make films which challenge the viewer’s expectations and widen his own filmmaking abilities. Dolls is a striking example of various levels of storytelling and treatments of a theme. It can be enjoyed on purely the most simple aesthetic level as a stunningly composed and beautifully photographed work, yet it works on many other, sometimes contradictory, levels. It works as both a tribute to traditional Japanese storytelling and a reaction against the romanticism of those stories and the viewer is free to choose whichever interpretation they like. Whichever way you look at it though, this is a beautiful, graceful, thoughtful and considered work of art.