Takeshi Kitano attempts to turn puppet theater on its head. Following his foray into the streets of Los Angeles and the studios of Hollywood for the disappointing yakuza movie Brother (2001), Takeshi Kitano has come home. His new film, Dolls, marks not merely a geographical return to a Japan dolled-up in all her cliched seasonal finery, but also a shift through time to revive a story from the depths of Japanese literature.
``Dolls'' sets off in pursuit of high art, abandoning the wranglings of gang warfare in favor of more profound psychological struggles. Kitano himself ranks the film as one of his ``most violent,'' referring not to the physical violence that bathed his earlier films in blood, but to the abstract emotional violence inflicted by love.
The ambition is admirable; the result, seductive but flawed. Classic tragedy can survive on little blood, but Kitano's neglect of believable emotions leaves ``Dolls'' laboring from an absence of heart.
The film opens amid the artifice of the bunraku puppet theater, on whose stage an 18th-century tale of doomed love (Chikamatsu Monzaemon's ``The Courier of Hell'') is being performed. We are permitted only a few mesmeric minutes in the company of painted dolls and their artful manipulators before Kitano twitches the narrative strings to draw us into the more familiar world of flesh and blood. The bunraku dolls are left behind, but their story remains, providing Kitano the framework on which to hang his own interpretation of the love tragedy.
The principal lovers are Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Sawako (Miho Kanno). He is an eager executive who, on the day of his arranged marriage to the boss's daughter, hears of the attempted suicide of Sawako, his true love. She is the lovelorn girlfriend left insane and mute by a failed overdose. The guilt-ridden Matsumoto retrieves Sawako from a psychiatric hospital and, bound together like two puppets on the same string, they traipse along the backbone of the film toward a preappointed tragic ending.
The lovers are not alone in their cruel fate. Perhaps aware that the central narrative lacks the complexity to support a feature film, Kitano opts for a triptych, introducing two other threads into the weave. Unfortunately, neither of these-the love of a pathetic fan for a flimsy pop star and the soapy schmaltz of an aging gangster remembering a forgotten childhood sweetheart-have the depth to become more than a superficial sketch.
In search of substance, the camera dwells on a succession of unsubtle emblems: a broken butterfly, an ornamental cherub. But most of these images refuse the symbolic weight Kitano attempts to bestow on them. In the inserted silences, we find not depth but vacuity. The distinction between useful supporting material and meaningless padding becomes difficult to maintain in a film whose two-hour duration testifies to the indulgence of a director who edits his own work.
Nevertheless, while the parts of the narrative struggle to cohere, the general movement of the film is exquisite. Kitano takes the fundamental conceit of puppet theater-the sublime metamorphosis of wood to flesh-and turns it on its head. While the puppetmaster's dolls appear to come alive on stage, Kitano's actors are gradually stripped of life and mutely totter back toward the artificial roots of their tragedy.
Toward the end, Matsumoto and Sawako, with the painted faces and mechanical gait of bunraku dolls, glimpse an image of their former selves. Gathered with friends to announce the engagement that never was, they are no longer dressed in the preposterously colorful robes of the puppet, but in the black lines of the puppeteer. This mocking mirage of a life lived within the lovers' own control-a breath of humanity in a film long drained of emotion-painfully reveals the extent of their lapse into artifice.
The thrust toward artifice plays to Kitano's aesthetic strengths. Visually, ``Dolls'' is impeccable.
The often-berated lines that bisect Japan's landscape-power cables, railway tracks, highways-are handled not with shame, but with gusto. They are embraced into each painterly scene, presented as the strings that hold the fiber of nature together. Mother Nature herself is dragged onto the stage of artifice and cast as yet another puppet on a string. The success of such an audacious coup reminds us of what Kitano is capable.
Yet such superficial triumphs never fully mask the film's flaws. Although memorable and beguiling, ``Dolls'' ultimately falls victim to its own drive toward dehumanization. While it brims with beauty, it lacks life.