One of the last films I wrote a review for was the Korean thriller "Tell me something". I gave the movie a negative review on the basis that it's plot was unreasonably labyrinthine and it's subject matter not worth the time required to find the center of such a maze. Now I find myself reviewing a similar film. Similar not because of any morbid content or layered plot but because of the thought it required of me. The difference for "Dolls", is that by the end I actually wanted to think about the movie.
The film starts with a strange sight. We attend a showing of classical Japanese theatre - as performed by puppets. This short performance relates the tale of a woman and a man who have a relationship, but because of forces unseen were thrown into strife. The whole time voices emanate from lifeless dolls being paraded across the stage.
At the end of this prologue there is a quick shot of the two automatons by themselves, no manipulative hands, no strings, no background to speak of. After the preceding it actually comes as something of a shock to see them turn and look at each other on their own. Here we realize how emotions like endearment can be transmuted through still objects just by allowing their required environment to fall away from them and leaving them in the company of each other. And in this realization we also see the strategy of director Takeshi Kitano. Known in the greater film world for his unnaturally stoic players and silent strategy. Kitano utilizes the more calm techniques of the Noh theatre (his actor's faces as still as a play's masks) to tell his story through the basics of the scene itself. As if reading a book or listening to a story told verbally his movies relate information through a stories outlines more than the filling.
This style though is certainly not for all, and sometimes not for any. While many directors have popularized stillness for effect, it is a tricky maneuver. For the most part "Dolls" correctly utilizes it's slow pace to allow the viewer to consider what he or she is witnessing. But every once in a while Kitano's film slips from the generosity of giving viewers time to evaluate the characters into a mistrust that they will not once the film has ended. But only rarely. For the most part not only are we allowed the breathing space to consider the onscreen happenings, but for Kitano to use the camera itself to convey subtle information. When two people sit together his camera rotates around them, bringing them physically closer together and giving a likewise mental impression. What could have been exciting kinetic imagery is left off screen, possibly because Kitano wanted to stray from the more visible violence of his previous films, but this seems to be a decision of only allowing pertinent information (and not just for the sake of minimalist technique).
From this review so far you may think the story is all style and little drama. In a way this is true, Kitano's style forces the characters into submission, but none the less is nothing without them. Initially we are introduced to the simple love story of a boy and a girl. Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is a promising company man, betrothed to the presidents daughter he leaves right before his own wedding to attend to his true love Sawako (Miho Kanno), who has attempted suicide. Left in a child like state she wanders aimlessly and quietly. At least until he gets the idea of tying a red wool length around their wastes. Of course he cannot return to his work and with the movie giving us no indication of her having family the pair set off on a journey without a destination.
Shortly the story segues into that of a local Yakuza boss, Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi). Unlike Matsumoto, Hiro sacrificed his love for the sake of his career, and now spends his later days pondering the day he made that decision. This story is both sad and strange at the same time. But then one has to accept that in the world of operatic plays, when a rejected woman says she'll meet at the usual lunch location of her and her love every week for the rest of her life, she might very well do it.
Further on we see the story of Haruna, a burgeoning J-pop star (played by Kyoko Fukada, herself a performer) who's short career is cut at just that after a car accident. The crash leaves her blind and puts to the test how far one of her most dedicated fans will go to associate with her. The fan, Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige), is seen in his apartment early on dancing before an altar to the singer, so it's not hard to surmise he will go far. This story may seem initially out of place as the relationship between these two is one sided and admittedly disturbing, but remember the reigning similarity in these stories is that of outside influences, not inner motivations. So since the characters in these 3 threads interact with each other minimally (they literally walk by one another) the audience is completely left to itself to decide what one story means to another.
There are many approaches filmmakers take to tell a story. They can be straightforward, serving us their plot and allowing their characters to be clear and concise about what they are thinking. They can also be guarded, purposefully infusing ambiguity into their work to force out the idea of a grand artistic "theme". The later sometimes including the minefield that is symbolism. Works like those of Kitano fall somewhere in-between the two. Though unexplained images like a fish wearing a paper kimono may make one stop to ponder the meaning of such a rare sight, Kitano does not pretend these images are the main drive of the film (though I've been told a "red cord" is a term used in describing strong Japanese relationships). Like the very way our brain interprets movies, Kitano places images before our eyes and allows the basic emotions produced by them to link his story together. He adds characters and actions and stays on his side of the screen, never reaching across to push our minds all in the same direction.
So what is the sum we are left with? This is obviously the story of dolls, beings controlled not by themselves. Are we to see this movie as 3 parts? What we need to be controlled by, what we have to be controlled by and what we want to be controlled by? Since the story of Matsumoto and Sawako bookend the film perhaps it is the exploration of a single subject and not the 3 variations of one idea? But then to search too hard for "meaning" would be, as stated, going against the very technique of the film.
Though this is most certainly a good film, I feel this is not one of Kitano's best films, that distinction remains with Hana-Bi in my mind. While I praise it's unwillingness to guide it's audience I cannot ignore that this technique has produced is a mild impression. A mild impression due to it's un-unique subject matter, but one I do appreciate none the less. Why? Because in the midst of all the sounds of noise and dialogue and each well framed colorful landscape there is a single short moment for the people in each of these 3 stories where the environment falls away from them and no one exists but two people left in the company of each other. And I can't imagine anyone not appreciating that.
Notes on the DVD
This review was based off of the Region 3 Panorama/Golden Scene disc. English subtitles are removable and well written. The widescreen image is not as sharp as it probably could have been and while the sound is Dolby 5.1 the volume seems uneven in places. But neither of these nitpicks would keep me from recommending the disc.