***/**** Image B+ Sound B
starring Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi, Chieko Matsubara
written and directed by Takeshi Kitano
by Walter Chaw Dolls is beautiful--that much can be expected from Japanese director Takeshi Kitano. It's meticulously-framed, interested in theatre, obsessed with the ocean, and stately in a way that re-establishes Kitano as a bridge of sorts between the formalism of Japanese cinema's past and the lawlessness of its present. But the film, the rare Kitano-directed piece in which he does not also appear, dispenses with hinting around at his absurdist auteur tendencies and sublimates his subtext into the text. To that end, it opens with an extended Bunraku performance--shot with a devouring fascination that hints at the ningyo (doll worship) suggested by the title and set to follow--concerning two doomed lovers that parallels the three barely-intersecting couples whose stories comprise the body of this anthology. The decision to make a film that is all subtext, however, is seldom successful: such pictures tend towards the pretentious, for one; and in emptying the basement, logic follows, they leave the basement empty. So it is with Dolls, which says everything it has to say, leaving only the speculation upon a repeat viewing (if one is necessary or desired) for how personal a project this might have been for Kitano and ultimately what this film tells us about the rest of Kitano's films. Then again, there's something that nags about Dolls, opening the possibility for another possible eventuality for this kind of piece.
The binding romantic pair, so to speak, consists of Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Sawako (Miho Kanno). He chooses prestige over love and she, distraught, attempts suicide, succeeding instead in sending herself into a catatonic stupor. They become bound to one another figuratively when he abandons his wedding to find her in an asylum--then literally by a thick red cord that represents (as far as anything represents anything in Dolls) the strings and sticks that manipulate the Bunraku marionettes. Thus yoked, they walk through the film's gorgeous landscapes: carpets of red leaves, snowscapes vast and frigid, train tracks that are in appearance and function the sutures that ravel the disparate regions of the film and Japan together. Meanwhile, an old mob boss (Tatsuya Mihashi) returns to the park bench where he'd abandoned his girlfriend fifty years previous to discover her still waiting on him, and a pop star (Kyôko Fukada) no more or less execrable than her American counterparts is disfigured by an accident but remains an object of affection for a legion of fans.
Kitano is well-equipped to speak of the perils of fame in his home country--he's so omnipresent in nearly every form of mass media in the land of the rising sun that his films (until Zatoichi) are greeted there with fatigue and disdain. Likewise, he finds himself in familiar territory exploring the dangerous rapture of too much introspection. Dolls, then, is an intensely, engrossingly personal project, one that actually finds subtext, miraculously, in what the audience itself brings to the conversation. It dawns on me that it's the thing that something like this hopes will trump its pretension and obviousness: allegory. (Note Kitano's essaying of the four seasons: the spring of love; the summer of infertility; the autumn of regret; and the winter of discontent.) Projecting oneself onto the role of the perpetrator or the victim of his mini-passions says volumes about the universality of his tableaux, or the malleability of his opinion of the line (rope, string, track) separating obsession from love. But it's that very aspiration to the seriomythic that causes Kitano's habit of incorporating bits of slapstick in his films, remnants of his early days as part of a stand-up comedy duo (The Two Beats), to feel out of place and even jarring in the case of Dolls, where Kitano's instinct to contextualize--to familiarize what is allegorical--deflates the delicate bubble of his self-devouring fables. It's neither a long journey nor an overly complex one: Dolls feels for all the world like a caesura in the longer work in progress of Kitano's evolving portfolio, but it's a little nothing that's there instead of a little nothing that isn't. A few days removed from my first and only viewing of it, I admit it's already begun to grow a little in the rearview.
Dolls arrives on DVD in an exclusive-to-Canada presentation (mirroring the film's non-appearance in North American cinemas outside its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival) from Seville that does itself proud. Though mastered from a PAL source, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image looks surprisingly sharp and impossibly saturated, and only the sharp-eyed or the anal-retentive will notice a smattering of compression artifacts. The transfer is matched pretty well by a Japanese DD 2.0 stereo track--with optional English subtitles--that reproduces dialogue and Joe Hisaishi's typically spellbinding score (a Japanese Philip Glass, say) with equal clarity. (Why it's not a 5.1 soundmix, I haven't the foggiest.) As for extras, although the Region 3 release of Dolls sports a wealth of supplementary material, this bare-bones disc is what we're stuck with domestically. Kitano is the best director in the world no one has ever heard of--and his continued anonymity in the United States, particularly, is directly a result of this sort of carelessness in his packaging and presentation for a slightly-underestimated Western audience. There's hope that Zatoichi brought an end to the days of Kitano's films going unreleased in the U.S., but if I tend towards the cynical, I also tend to be possessive of my little cult peccadilloes. Funny how the most well-known person in Japan is a secret shared by a select group of cinephiles in the United States. Sad, too. Originally published: November 18, 2004.