Takeshi Kitano’s beautiful, meditative film Dolls opens with a bunraku performance. Bunraku is a traditional Japanese art form in which marionettes are manipulated by three different puppeteers, so as to accommodate a full range of movements, including eyes, eyebrows, and mouths. This bunraku isn’t connected in any way with film’s narrative, instead it lays a metaphorical foundation that will tightly controlled both visually and emotionally by Kitano’s manipulating the strings of his characters. When this introductory performance ends, Kitano’s narrative begins as he leads his “puppets” in three overlapping stories of heartbreak, in which the characters are invisibly manipulated by their selfish own actions.
In the first story, young Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) caves in to his parents’ pressure to break off his romance with Sawako (Miho Kanno) and marry his boss’ daughter. Sawako is heartbroken and attempts suicide. She survives, though with extensive brain damage (which is never really explained), and is unable to recognize anyone she has known previously. Consumed with guilt, Matsumoto spirits Sawako away, hoping to restore her memory. Sawako, however, is given to wandering away unattended, sometimes putting herself into dangerous situations. Matsumoto decides to tie a long red around each of their waists, so that wherever she wanders, he may follow, and watch over her. Their strange appearance makes them an object of curiosity for the locals who dub them the “Bound Beggars.”
The second story Kitano presents finds an aging yakuza boss longing for a lost love. As a young man, Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) is a factory worker and was deeply in love with Ryoko (Chieko Matsubara), who brings him his lunch in a nearby park every day. With his factory facing bankruptcy, and a position waiting in the yakuza, Hiro breaks up with Ryoko, promising to return for her once he has attained his fortune. Despondent, the woman says she will return to park each day waiting for his return. We jump into the future, where Hiro, now an elderly gentleman, returns to the park to find that his unnamed lover has remained true to her word, and has returned over the years to the park each day with two lunches.
The final story revolves around Haruna (Kyoko Fukada) a Japanese pop star. After a horrific car accident, half of her face becomes disfigured, and she retreats from the spotlight, refusing to speak to anyone, especially fans. Though a bit more distant, Kitano sets up the relationship between pop star and fan as romance similar to the first two stories. One particularly devoted fan/lover, Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige) is desperate to see Haruna, and commits a surprising and horrific act in order to reunite with his loved one.
The unifying thread in all three stories is selfishness. Matsumoto, though pressured by parents, ultimately makes a decision that will serve his own ends. By marrying the boss’s daughter he not only secures a financial future for himself but also gets his nagging parents off his back. Hiro is similarly consumed with the desire for a secure life when he callously leaves his partner eternally waiting for him in the park. Finally, to save her own embarrassment at her disfigured face, Haruna shuts out the very people who helped her attain fame and fortune. In each of these cases, the jilted lovers are scarred by the callous actions of their loved ones and struggle to cope with their loss.
This sense of loss and emotional turmoil is made even more apparent in the visual aspects and effects of the film. In an interview as part of the DVD’s special features, Kitano speaks of how fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto costumes inspired him to make a bunraku film: “[he] came up with all those rather striking costumes. That inspired me to consolidate the film’s concept into a story conceived by bunraku puppets, told in the form of a puppet show featuring human characters.” Yamamoto, in an interview also featured on the DVD, corroborates Kitano’s excitement: “At the very very first fitting, I showed Kitano [the costumes] for one couple. He jumped from his chair and ran to the clothes and started touching them and . . . he got excited at that moment.”
Though clearly indebted to the bunraku traditions, and incredibly stagy at times, Kitano, Yamamoto and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima have also tried give Dolls “non-specific” metaphorical visuals (as Kitano states in the DVD interview). Thus, the stories are told slowly, and stretched to the maximum possible length as Kitano continually abandons compelling narrative to linger on gorgeous but inconsequential visual details that are supposed to lend insight, perhaps, to the characters’ feelings, but accumulate into little more than technically proficient photography. There is a wealth of stunning shots here but the story is a sidebar serving the cinematography rather than vice versa.
In these narrative silences, Dolls lingers on heartbreak but doesn’t say much about it. Though Kitano’s “puppets” relive their past loves in the form of flashbacks, they seem to learn nothing from their reflection, nor even acknowledge the crassness of their selfish actions, but instead live in a protracted state of guilt. Each character seeks forgiveness, but how is that possible when they are unaware of their own shortcomings? Though the characters that have caused the stories’ heartbreak are plagued by guilt, all fail to take any responsibility for their callous actions. Instead the characters engage in their own selfish self-flagellation. Spending time with the ones they’ve hurt, they wear the pain they’ve caused on their faces and nowhere else, in one gorgeously constructed shot after another. Kitano never allows his characters complete absolution, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide if these “puppets” will take the lessons they’ve learned (if any) and apply them in their future relationships.