Judge Dan Mancini fears his entire existence may be a figment of Kermit the Frog's imagination.
"Away they fled, to yonder and beyond where their feet may guide them."—The Courier of Hell, Monzaemon Chikamatsu
Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653—1725) is one of Japan's most celebrated playwrights. He wrote for kabuki as well as the traditional Japanese puppet dramas called bunraku. His writings focused on feudal Japan's working classes and often dealt with tragic, forbidden love. Because his plays explore the tension between duty and personal happiness, Chikamatsu has proven a popular source for Japanese filmmakers. Masahiro Shinoda, for example, adapted his Double Suicide at Amijima into 1969's Double Suicide, a live-action bunraku complete with eerie hooded puppeteers manipulating the human actors.
Another of Chikamatsu's most famous bunraku pieces is The Courier of Hell, the sad tale of a merchant who embezzles money in order to redeem a courtesan with whom he's fallen in love (a plot similar to Double Suicide's). This play became the inspiration for director Takeshi Kitano's Dolls. Rather than adapt Chikamatsu, however, Kitano offers his own stories, inspired by the playwright's fascination with the middle-classes, tragic love, and the irresolvable push-and-pull of duty and autonomy. The result is a complete break from the yakuza films and actioners for which Kitano is known. Dolls is a wonderfully moody, beautifully shot art film.
Facts of the Case
Though Kitano says he tried to avoid making a vignette film, that's essentially what Dolls is. The first of its three stories traces the sad circumstances of a young couple whose love goes wrong. Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima, 2004's Casshern) is affianced to Sawako (Miho Kanno, Tomie) until the opportunity of advancing his career by marrying his boss's daughter ends their relationship. Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide, loses her mind, and has to be committed to an institution. A guilt-ridden Matsumoto leaves his bride at the altar, rescues Sawako from her confinement, and devotes himself to being with her, though her mind is mostly gone. Soon enough, he finds keeping Sawako—whose personality is somewhere between toddler and zombie—out of trouble is a full-time job. His solution is to bind her to him with a long, red cord. As the couple wanders the Japanese countryside in quiet sorrow—physically connected, yet emotionally distant from one another—they become known as the bound beggars.
The two remaining vignettes are only connected to the first and to each other by shared themes and brief appearances by the bound beggars wandering through their landscapes. In one, an aging yakuza boss named Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi, High and Low) indulges sad memories of Ryoko (Chieko Matsubara, Tokyo Drifter), a girlfriend from his youth with whom he shared lunches at a local park. Feeling unworthy of the girl, young Hiro left her on the park bench with promises to make a success of himself, and return to marry her. He never came back. When the aged Hiro visits the park, he discovers to his horror that Ryoko has eaten there every day during the intervening decades, bringing a boxed lunch for him, and diligently awaiting his return. Wrenched by regret over time forever lost, Hiro attempts to reconnect with Ryoko, only to discover some wrongs can't be righted.
The final vignette concerns Haruna (Kyoko Fukada, Onmyoji 2), a young popstar on top of the world until she's disfigured in an accident. Haruna soon learns the frightening personal lengths to which her most devoted fan (Tsutomu Takeshige, The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi) will go in order to assuage her self-doubt and demonstrate his love and devotion.
Dolls opens with a brief bunraku performance of a scene from The Courier of Hell that ends with the puppet couple, Umegawa and Chubei, staring into the camera before a transition into the story of the bound beggars. Kitano says he wanted Dolls to be a sort of playful reversal, examining the lives of human beings through the eyes of bunraku puppets. It sounds like a goofy idea, but the end result is a film that melds bunraku's tragic fatalism with a more modern sensibility. The movie is about the paradox of the characters' capacity for selfish cruelty to their lovers, even while they are unable to disentangle their lives from the people they hurt. It posits and inextricable soul connection between couples, most obviously represented in the bound beggars. Matsumoto's behavior has so devastated Sawako, each of them wanders the earth in a personal hell, alienated from one another even as they're attached at the hip. Each of the vignettes main characters learns the same lesson: that their actions have real consequences; that they have the ability to casually destroy the lives of others. That they each learn the lesson too late to make amends is what imbues the film with its disquieting sense of tragedy.
Dolls is slow and quiet. It trudges along at the ambling pace of the shattered bound beggars. Dialogue is spare. This doesn't hamper the actors. They rise to the occasion, giving emotionally delicate performances, speaking volumes with their eyes, face, bodies, without wearing their hearts or minds on their sleeves. Kitano meticulously builds a profoundly emotional film that never takes the easy road of sentiment. Though its pace is languid, its subtlety and attention to the details of human interaction make it engrossing. They demand a viewer's close attention. Anyone half-watching this film will come away with the impression they've been subjected to a cold, clinical, endless examination of characters drifting through life with a flat affect. Watch closely, though, and you'll get caught up in the characters' plights; you'll see the depth of their sorrow and emptiness with brilliant clarity. Kitano's precise and sensitive handling of the elements of story, theme, and character make Dolls worth watching again and again. Each viewing offers an attentive viewer the discovery of details previously missed.
The look of the film is as sumptuous as the story and acting. Kitano's use of eye-popping seasonal colors combines with Yohji Yamamoto's costume design to give the film a dynamic look that underpins its downward emotional arc. The world of the film cycles inexorably from spring, to summer, to fall, to winter, bolstering the sense of entropy that defines the relationships between the characters. Just as Kitano steps boldly into the conceit of human actors as seen through the eyes of puppets, he exaggerates the seasons to emphasize his themes. Spring and summer skies are bright blue and adrift in plump, lolling clouds as white as the blooming cherry blossoms; autumn leaves are saturated red and accented with touches of purple; winter snow is pristine white and virginal smooth. Yamamoto's costumes are always a perfect match to the setting, reminding us that the characters exist in a fantasy world. Their exterior world looks as fake as their interior worlds feel real. They are the dream, after all, of puppets that exist on the flat artifice of the stage. Kitano brilliantly coordinates setting and costume in order to remind us of that artifice, and so avoids having to reduce his film to a visually static imitation of a stage performance. That carefully crafted sense of artifice in turn strengthens the expression of theme. Once we've cycled all the way from spring to winter, there's no sense—as there is in life—that the rebirth represented by spring is right around the corner. No. The story's over, the credits roll, and we leave the bound beggars in the chill of a perpetual winter.
The film's rich and varied color palette is marvelously reproduced on this DVD. Presented in the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, enhanced for 16:9 displays, the image is sharp and clean. The Dolby 5.1 presentation of the Japanese audio is more than sufficient for the restrained source. The mix is well-balanced, and crystal clear.
Extras are limited to a series of cast and crew interviews. Clocking in at over 15 minutes in length, Kitano's interview is the longest and most interesting. He discusses the genesis of the project, the film's look, the give-and-take of his collaboration with Yohji Yamamoto, and why he chose not to appear as an actor in the film. Actors Miho Kanno and Hidetoshi Nishijima each speak for just under four minutes in separate interviews. Both talk mainly about the experience of working with Kitano. Costume designer Yohji Yamamoto's interview runs 10 minutes and is the only one of the four conducted in English. He discusses working with Kitano, and contrasts the work of costume design with his forte—fashion design.
The only other supplement is the film's theatrical trailer.
Dolls is the sort of film that demands that viewers calibrate themselves to its sensibilities. It is slow, subtle, and sad. Enter in the wrong state of mind and you're guaranteed a miserable ride. But if you allow the film to win your sympathy, it's the sort of picture you'll watch again and again, finding new pleasures with every viewing.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Cast and Crew Interviews
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