An allegory about misguided romantic allegiances and their resultant damage, Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls" opens with a long look at a pair of traditional Japanese Bunraku puppets sitting eerily still before a performance at Tokyo's National Theater. A few moments later, they come to life thanks to the ministrations of three puppeteers apiece. After the credits, the film moves outside to the garden of a small suburban chapel, where elegant guests wait for a wedding to start. It never does. From there, "Dolls" moves forward at the clip of a tectonic plate, and just as inexorably. The movie's pace is appropriate to its mood, which is crisp, melancholy and gently cruel.
Leaving himself uncharacteristically out of the picture, Kitano wrote, directed and edited "Dolls" (which was completed before "Zatoichi" but released later) in the spirit of a Monzaemon Chikamatsu play. Considered Japan's Shakespeare, the 17th century poet is best known for his tales of shinju, or love suicide. Kitano and cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima create a static stage out of naturalistic land- and cityscapes with the use of long, vivid, beautifully controlled shots through which the actors trudge, like puppets, as if guided by the invisible hand of fate. This subtle sense of unreality is enhanced by famed avant-garde fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto's unlikely yet weirdly credible costumes, and the movie's production design is similarly naturalistic yet formal at the same time. Characters drift through time and space -- country, city, suburbs and all four seasons -- in an eerily orderly fashion.
"Dolls" consists of three loosely intertwined stories that focus on three couples in the loosest sense of the word. The first is the story of the young Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Having broken up with his beloved fiancee at the insistence of his parents in order to marry his boss's daughter, Matsumoto leaves his own wedding to rescue Sawako (Miho Kanno) from the mental hospital in which she's landed after a suicide attempt. The second is the story of old Yakuza (Tatsuya Mihashi), who, having reached a sentimental age, returns to the park where he broke off a relationship 30 years ago to focus on his criminal career. To his astonishment, he finds his girlfriend kept a promise he didn't expect her to keep. The third story involves a pop star disfigured in a car accident and the two obsessive fans that imagine themselves rivals for her affection.
Bunraku plays are narrated by a tayu, who also supplies the voices for all of the characters. The characters in "Dolls" speak only as much as is absolutely necessary. There isn't much to say. Once events have been set in motion, characters are powerless to derail their course or effect change of any kind.
Once Matsumoto skips out on his wedding, he turns his back on his old life. He and Sawako drift on their middle-class fumes for a while -- staying in hotels at first, then in his car -- until they evolve into a more organic part of the landscape. Sawako's near-catatonic tendency to wander off when he's not looking leads Matsumoto to bind them together with a long red cord. Eventually, they steal a couple of traditional robes from a clothing line, visually echoing the puppets of the opening scenes, and from then on they are archetypal figures, symbols of an ancient tradition.
When Matsumoto's mother grieves her lost son, his father reminds her, "It was his choice." But Kitano's characters can't be said to "make choices," as the director has pointed out, because they're so blinkered they literally can't see their other alternatives. It's the inescapable outcome of these so-called choices, made in a state of emotional tunnel-vision, that gives "Dolls" its 17th century-contemporary feel. At times, it's impossible to tell if the stories' themes feel like relics from another time or up-to-the-minute. This is the great, slow trick Kitano pulls off in "Dolls." The world is no more yielding or forgiving now than it was three centuries ago; it's just unyielding and unforgiving in different ways. Kitano has said that he thinks "Dolls" is more violent than his gangster film, "Brother." And compared with what time and nature do to these characters, guns would seem merciful.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Times guidelines: Some suggested violence
Tatsuya Mihashi...Hiro (Yakuza)
Chieko Matsubara...Woman in the Park
Kyoko Fukada...Haruna (the Pop Star)
Tsutomu Takeshige...Nukui (the Fan)
A Palm Pictures and Bandai Visual, Tokyo FM, TV Tokyo and Office Kitano presentation. Writer-director Takeshi Kitano. Producers Masayuki Mori, Takio Yoshida. Cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima. Editor Takeshi Kitano. Costume Designer Yohji Yamamoto. Art Director Norihiro Isoda. Music Joe Hisaishi. Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd., (323) 655-4010.