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Original Title:

Japan 2002

Drama, Romance

Takeshi Kitano

Hidetoshi Nishijima
Miho Kanno
Tatsuya Mihashi
Chieko Matsubara
Kyoko Fukada
Tsutomu Takeshige
Yuuko Daike
Kanji Tsuda
Ren Osugi

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Story: Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is forced by his parents to marry the daughter of a company boss. His true love Sawako (Miho Kanno) can't live with Matsumoto's decision and tries to commit suicide. When Matsumoto hears about this, he just leaves the wedding party, ditches the bride and heads to Sawako. But his former girlfriend is just a shell of her former self and doesn't recognize anyone anymore, even not Matsumoto. Being plagued by feelings of guilt and driven by his love, Matsumoto takes a trip with his girlfriend to whereever their road might lead them, in the hopes of reawakening old memories.
On their search they also come across other people who could share a story of tragic love themselves. Yakuza-Boss Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) remembers his old love, who promised to wait for him in a park every saturday. To his very surprise, when visiting the park, Hiro has to find out that after all these years that have passed, Ryoko (Chieko Matsubara) is still holding onto her promise and is waiting for him. However, nowadays Hiro has enemies that seek his life, and so this love remains merely a thin ray of hope, that he may never come to experience.
Furthermore, there is also Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige), who is worshipping Pop-Idol Haruna Yamaguchi (Kyoko Fukada), who one day is involved in an accident, which leaves her with only one eye. In order to meet his beloved anyway, Nukui makes a big sacrifice...

Review: Many critics see Takeshi Kitano as one of Japan's best directors. As a matter of fact, Kitano has found his own recognizable style and way of making movies. Long camera shots with numerous close-ups, static camera work and minimal use of dialogues are part of his standard repertoire. We also get to see this stuff in "Dolls". Still, this drama is different from his other works as "Hana-Bi" or "Brother" in the way that there are almost no Kitano-characteristic sudden bursts of violence. Apart from a little side story revolving around a Yakuza boss he also refrains from focusing his story on the tale of a member of the Japanese mafia as he usually does. In this respect, "Dolls" is a special film of Kitano, which has tragic love, guilt and retribution as central themes.
Unfortunately, the drama has to abandon the field because of Kitano's typical flaws conerning his directing, that are especially apparent in this work of his.

"Dolls" tries, and at some points it also succeeds, in being a different film of what we are used to see from Kitano. However, one thing you just can't overlook, no matter how much good will you are ready to give, is the way Kitano introduces his characters and is directing his movie. Over and over again we are presented with individuals that stare into the camera in sudden lengthy close-up shots, whereas Kitano takes all the time in the world to introduce the characters this way. There is also some variety in form of long panorama shots, which create a certain distance to the events on screen. Kitano's quiet and static way of filming is somewhat getting boring, these days, as he just doesn't seem to be willing to come up with anything new. This time he is even going a step further, reaching a new level of tranquility, since he was the man in charge, being responsible not only for the direction and script, but this time also for the editing. Therefore, he had complete artistic freedom, leading to seemingly endless snapshots, that become really tedious with time. We are constantly striving to discover some of the hidden symbols or a certain meaning lying within the pictures, but concerning the interpretion of these, you might be left behind with nothing in the end. The symbols Kitano is scattering throughout his film are rather apparently worked into his movie, which still doesn't mean that it's easy to grasp their meaning.

The absolutely somniferous pacing is without a doubt the biggest weak point of "Dolls". Kitano seems to be putting his focus on the mood and atmosphere of his work, and he really achieves a lot with this. Anyway, he really makes it hard for the viewer not to fall asleep. By now I consider myself a friend of tranquil dramas, but Kitano really demands too much patience of the viewer. Since I don't drink coffee, I was forced to keep myself awake with lots and lots of cola in order to get my share of caffeine to withstand the urge to doze off and to remain mentally present until the movie's end. In the long run, stuff like this surely doesn't do my level of blood sugar any good...
Moreover, "Dolls" looks too much like overstyled art most of the time. We get many symbols that are waiting to be analyzed, which however becomes really hard when not being provided with any tools or hints that might lead us into the right direction. Especially the dream sequence of Sawako is once again one of those sleight of hand stuff that is radiating the term "art" and which Kitano really loves to make use of. It is full of hidden meaning, but it's also alienating. "Dolls" is full of symbols fraught with meaning. Still, decrypting them is so hard at times, that we really have to question if Kitano actually had something specific in mind, or worked them into his work just for the sake of art itself. Or maybe the writer of these lines just isn't adequately mentally equipped...

Imparted with a very slow pacing we accompany Matsumoto and Sawako on their aimless trip, in the hope that they might regain their memories of the past and find their mutual love again. Although Takeshi Kitano tries hard, he somewhere along the way must have become aware that he can't just fill his movie with the two main protagonists, tied to each other with a red rope, stumbling through the different places and fields, only.
Thus, Kitano incorperates two more stories into his work, which are about an extreme form of love, too. That's also where the problem lies as the two stories are in no way connected to the main story, besides a loose thread provided by the same theme of unfulfilled love. Therefore, it's no wonder that they somehow feel carelessly thrown into the movie, without aiming for a coherent whole.
Also disappointing are the actors' efforts. Their performances range from wooden to cold. Only Miho Kanno manages to bestow a certain subtle, tragic drama upon her character. Tatsuya Mihashi, on the other hand, is the only one who manages to give his character something similar to depth.

Of course, there are also some upsides. The cinematography, especially in the second half, stands out with its fantastic full colors, which gives the characters' journey through the landscapes of different seasons a certain kind of undeniable romantic and beauty. Red seems to be the main motif standing for life, love and death. Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, who is also responsible for the pictures in many of Kitano's other works, does a great job and along with the moody score of Joe Hisaishi manages that the monotonous and tedious walks of the main actors can get a more positive side to it, so that we are almost willing to forgive the film many of its flaws.
However, the movie's ending is somewhat predictable. Especially the fact that the rope around Sawako and Matsumoto was going to play a macabre role later on, was pretty clear for me even in the beginning. Anyway, where this drama is heading to is already hinted in the Bunraku puppet play at the beginning, so no big surprise here.

What's really disappointing in "Dolls" is the characters. They are lacking any development and despite numerous flashbacks that are inserted into the movie, they also lack any depth. This is why we can never emotionally connect to them and are not affected by whatever fate may await them.
You have to give Takeshi Kitano some credit for the fact that he almost completely abstains from violence which is already some sort of handwriting of his. If it actually comes to some more violent moments, these scenes are just fading out.
"Dolls" surely is a drama that shows us the more soft spot of Kitano, but it fails to deliver because of shallow characters and a somniferous pacing. Furthermore, the movie just feels too much like a overstyled piece of art.
Reading this review you might be thinking that "Dolls" is a bad movie, or that the writer of this article is in truth a Kitano-hater. Nothing of this is actually the case. I respect Kitano for his work, but I just would like to see that he would change the bearing of his directing. "Dolls" may score with its beautiful cinematography, and at times the meaning-loaden pictures can also be quite touching when you take your time reflecting about them (and believe me, you get that time), but the incredibly slow pacing, a story that feels to episode-like and underdeveloped characters make this movie one of the inferior films by Kitano.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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