by Jay Seaver
I admit - I've kind of avoided Takeshi Kitano until last year. Hana-bi had bored me to tears when I saw it at the only boutique theater in Portland, Maine; and I didn't even connect him to the villain in Johnny Mnemonic, whom I'd read was the biggest star in Japan but hadn't impressed me. Besides, he did pretentious-seeming things like using different names in front of and behind the camera. I really had no idea just how great and varied his talents were until I started to read up on him in anticipation of Zatoichi's release, which allowed me to approach Dolls with an open mind.Kitano's latest movie to see US release (though it preceded Zatoichi in Japan), Dolls, is a bit on the artsy side. The movie is three vignettes of tragic love, adapted from a type of puppet theater called Bunraku, and uses it as a framing device. Also, the tone of the film is very quiet, although with moments of great passion, and the three stories almost never actually affect each other, just passing close by.
"Something quite different for Kitano."
The most tender of the stories is that of Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi), an aging yakuza boss finding his life empty. He supports a fallen yakuza's wheelchair-bound son, but the kid's an obnoxious brat; the closest thing he has a friend and confidante is his driver/bodyguard. His mind drifts back to when he was a newly-laid off factory worker decades earlier, and the girl he broke up with rather than make her a part of his life of crime. Returning to the park where he broke up with her for the first time since, he's shocked to see Ryoko (Cheiko Matsubara) still coming, wearing the same dress and bringing two lunchboxes. The creepiest has Haruna (Kyoko Fukada), a pretty idol singer, disfigured in an automobile accident. She withdraws from the public eye, but one fan (Tsutomu Takeshige) goes to shocking lengths to show his devotion.
The story Kitano seems to spend the most time on, though, involves Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Sawako (Miho Kanno). On the day of his wedding to his boss's daughter, Matsumoto learns that Sawako, to whom he had previously been engaged, has attempted suicide. She survived, but the attempt has left her brain-damaged, with little more than the mind of an infant. Consumed with grief, he leaves his own wedding to care for her. Soon he has abandoned his home, his family, and his job, wandering the country (initially in a car, then on foot) with her bound to him by a length of rope, so that she cannot wander off and get into trouble.
I, not being terribly well-informed on the subject of Japanese culture, don't know whether these stories come directly from specific Bunraku or how are simply inspired by the form; whether they are traditional folk tales or are attributed to specific storytellers. Though all are set in the present day, with their participants occasionally encountering each other, the stories each seem to be of a different age. The marred beauty and her devoted admirer, though an archetype that appears in all cultures and times, is tied to the present day most strongly, with the news updates and manufactured fame. The bound lovers, on the other hand, fit feudal Japan much better than the modern one, and over the course of the movie the characters lose their connection to the present, taking on period dress and moving away from cities. The story of a fallen man encountering a still-innocent lost love, on the other hand, is timeless.
Though the stories are all tales of love, they are also tales of obsession. There's something unhealthy in each of the stories. Sawako being driven to suicide is obviously going too far, but breaking under pressure to do one self-destructive act is easy to understand. How Matsumoto literally ties his life to hers is many ways more frightening, since tending to her only feeds his guilt, and neither of them ever sees their lot improve. While the idea of a woman bringing her boyfriend lunch for thirty years because she's certain he will return is romantic, the reality is a life that could have been better spent. And while Haruna's retreat from public life doesn't seem as much an act of vanity as it could, what a fan who only ever spoke to her at autograph signings would do to himself to get close to her is horrifying.
The actors all turn in fine performances, fleshing out their characters in what is probably less than forty-five minutes of screen time each. Even if playing a mentally handicapped character is something that looks harder than it actually is, Miho Kanno is still intriguing, especially since flashbacks to her before her suicide attempt don't begin until fairly late in the film. The casting director also deserves some credit, as there's a remarkable resemblance between Chieko Matsubara and Yuuko Daike, the actress who lays Ryoko as a young woman.
But mostly, credit must go to Kitano. This is a peculiar, sometimes abstract, film, and it requires almost flawless execution. Kitano makes fantastic use of every tool at his disposal - music, sound, cinematography. The segments with Sawako and Matsumoto wandering are beautiful, even when the environment is not. He places flashbacks just right, cuts to a Bunraku performance at the right times, and moves smoothly between stories - sometimes by having them intersect, sometimes not. He knows when to show violence directly, when to pull away, and when to almost completely abstract it by cutting to the puppeteers' performance. This movie is an example of a master at workI ignored Kitano for a long time, to my detriment. I let one movie I didn't enjoy at the time cause me to overlook one of the most amazing filmmakers in Japan, who also has one of the most varied resumes. There's nothing else like Dolls on it, but then, there's very little like Dolls, period.
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originally posted: 03/23/05 19:17:29