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Lost emotions
A UK region 2 DVD review of DOLLS / DŌRUZU by Slarek
 

The second shot of Kitano Takeshi's first film since his US co-production Brother is a semi-circular track around two Japanese Bunraku puppets (a popular theatre form in Japan, but far less well known in the West than Kabuki or Noh), which are motionless and lacking any kind of emotional expression. This shot is repeated early on in the first of the three stories told here, though this time the subjects are human, a girl in a state of post-overdose shock sitting at next to her ex-fiancee, who is stunned at what has become of the one that he loved. Quietly establishing the link between the puppets and their human counterparts, Kitano's message becomes increasingly clear – like the dolls in his intriguing opening sequence, which shows the Bunraku puppeteers skillfully operating their characters as a lone narrator pleads and weeps and sings us through the Chikamatsu play they are performing, people can be manipulated and controlled, not just by others, but by their own emotions and beliefs.

Dolls tells three stories of obsessive love, loss and sacrifice. Featured in the first is Matsumoto, who despite having pledged to wed Sawako has been persuaded by his parents to marry for position and personal advancement instead. On the day of Matsumoto's wedding, a heartbroken Sawako tries to take her own life, an act that reduces her to an emotionless, unfeeling shell of her former self. Matsumoto flees his wedding and takes Sawako away with him, where the two become bonded in more than the emotional sense. In the second story, yakuza boss Hiro is prompted by his new bodyguard's attitude to relationships to remember a woman he once loved but whom he left to seek his fortune. She pledged to wait for him and he promised to return but never did, and now as an old man he looks back with regret on the happiness he may have lost. In the final tale, road worker Nukui idolises pretty young pop star Haruna, but is jealous of his rival Aoki, whom Haruna seems more aware of. When the star is injured in a car accident, she withdraws from society and refuses to see anyone, and Nukui plans extreme measures in order to meet the object of his devotion.

Coming from director Kitano Takeshi, and especially following his violent cross-cultural gangster film Brother, Dolls is something of a surprise. Kitano's works have often reminded me of writer Mishima Yukio's philosophy of art as the unification of the pen and the sword, "poetry with a splash of blood" – many of Kitano's tales of outsiders boast a poetic approach to storytelling and character that is disrupted by often jarring bursts of violence, reflecting the duality of Japan's sometimes turbulent history and warrior spirit with the elegant beauty of their art, clothing, architecture and calligraphy. At their centre of each film sits an emotional core that has ensured they are no mere technical exercises – the heart-rending wallop delivered at the end of Hana-Bi is one that stuns me on every viewing.

On the surface, at least, Dolls seems a very different beast, a formal exercise in style that not only pushes the violence off screen, but takes a very observational approach to its characters, never going out of its way to give them emotional or character depth, and like the Bunraku puppets of the opening scene, they move through the narrative with seemingly little or no expression. Sawako's attempted suicide, for example, has left both her and Matsumoto emotionally damaged, and it is to Kitano's credit that he manages to make their virtually wordless transformation to the wandering "bound beggars" such a fascinating one, despite the seemingly aimless nature of their travels. Later, when a flicker of emotion does break the stoic surface, it is Sawako's grief at a broken toy or her fractured attempt at a smile, one lost in a sea of painful memories, that engages us, rather than Mutsumoto's anguished and regretful hug.

The second story takes more traditional approach to character development, and works primarily through seasoned actor Mihashi Tatsuya's finely judged performance as yakuza boss Hiro and the manner in which his story unfolds. More familiar narrative buttons are pushed here, though Kitano still delivers a story twist that ultimately prevents the characters from finding what they have been searching for. Though Hiro is careful with his words, it is his face that betrays the regret and sadness that have become his closest companions.

The final story is the most recognisably Kitano tale, with Haruna's car crash and facial disfigurement reflecting Kitano's own serious scooter accident some years earlier. It is also here that the majority of the film's few comic moments appear, whether it be Nukui dancing around in his bedroom miming to Haruna's electro-pop song (made all the funnier by his own grunts and body movements being as loud as the muted music filtering from the headphones), or the head-smacks delivered by his seemingly idle supervisor as a reprimand.

The stories are not separated by inter-titles, as in Amores Perros or Pulp Fiction – the end of one tale and the start of another are triggered by nothing more than a straightforward cut to a previously unseen character and location. As with the aforementioned three-story films, the characters in each story do cross over to others, but the connection here is slight – Hiro's long lost love is Nukui's neighbour, Matsumoto and Sawako pass both Hiro's front door and the beach on which Nukui and Haruna will later meet – the inference being that these people are perhaps not so unusual and that there could be such a story behind almost any door. The film's lightest moments are supplied by two minor characters, a disabled boy and his friend who drift cheerily in and out of the three narratives, observing the strangeness of the bound beggars and failing to catch fish because they use tangerine for bait.

At times visually striking – the four seasons are vividly captured through some beautiful location work, photography and costume design – many of Kitano's trademarks are visible, paricularly in the editing (Kitano is his own editor), with key narrative events almost never shown and illustrated instead by their aftermath, which is often captured as a single static shot that proves every bit as jarring as the incident it has bypassed. This is used most effectively towards the film's end, but mid-way allows Kitano to kick against expectations and show the results of a gang shoot-out without any on-screen gunplay. Building on the non-linear cutting from the first act of Hana-Bi, the opening ten minutes of Matsumoto and Sawako's story at times reminded me of early Nicolas Roeg, the broken-mirror presentation of Sawako's suicide attempt reflecting the chaotic emotional state of a character soon to be drained of all feeling.

Dolls has been praised for its visual beauty but criticised for being emotionally hollow, but I think that misses the point and misreads the film. It is right that these characters should appear virtually emotionless – culturally, narratively and their nature as puppets of obsession makes this feel so appropriate – but to equate a lack of emotion in the characters with a lack of feeling in the film itself is wrong. A painting, a musical number, even nature itself can all provoke strong emotional responses and film as a medium is no different, and despite the seemingly calculated surface, this is a touching and affecting work. The combination of restrained direction, minimalist editing, Katsumi Yanagishima's sometimes beautiful photography, Yohji Yamamoto's costumes, Joe Hisaishi's evocative score and, yes, some cleverly judged low key performances, makes for a fascinating, involving film that ultimately speaks to the heart as well as the intellect.

sound and vision

Menus are straightforward enough and easy to navigate, set against looped extracts from the film, always from the more visually and aurally impressive sections.

Though not reference quality – some of the early interiors seem (perhaps intentionally) a little grubby – the anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer on this Artificial Eye disk is generally of a very high order. Though some sequences seem to be a little subdued in their colour scheme, this is exactly how it looked in the cinema and this is thus a faithful transfer. The picture comes into its own during the most visually striking sequences – the brilliant reds of the Japanese maple's autumn leaves, the Bunraku costumes in the stark white of a snowscape or against the vivid blues of the winter sky. Blacks are always solid, and night scenes are well reproduced. A thoroughly decent picture.

Sound is Dolby 2.0 rather than 5.1, which is a shame considering the richness of Joe Hisaishi's music and the location sound during the silent sequences. That said, the track is still quite nicely spread, with localised atmospheric sound and music well reproduced.

extra features

The main extras are divided between interview material and text-based essays.

Bunraku gives a four page, reasonably detailed introduction to the Bunraku puppet theatre. This is useful for those new to this form of Japanese theatre, which will likely be most of its UK audience. A Japanese friend of mine was particularly pleased that Takeshi had used Bunraku, in part because it introduced it to a wider international audience.

Monzaemon Chikamatsu is a two page textual introduction to probably the most important writer of Bunraku plays, having 110 to his name, plus a further 30 for Kabuki theatre. Though brief, it is a well written and useful introduction.

There are four Interviews, the most substantial of which is with director Kitano Takeshi. Split into two halves, both are shot on DV video, the first being 4:3, the second anamorphic 16:9, with Takeshi sporting dyed white hair suggesting this was recorded during the making of his latest film, the much anticipated Zatoichi. Questions are posed by title cards and the answers are in Japanese with English subtitles. This interview runs in total for about 30 minutes, but is less informative than you'd hope, in part because some of the questions are not that usefully targeted ("Is a woman more beautiful when she cries or laughs?"), but also because Takeshi himself is sometimes a little abstract or obscure in his responses. There is some interesting stuff nonetheless, about his approach to the film, his childhood memories of local yakuza gangs, and his belief that the dark themes of Dolls make it a more violent film than Brother.

The interview with lead actress Miho Kano is shot 4:3 on video and has the same structure as the first half of the Takeshi interview, and is about as insightful, though there are some interesting moments, especially regarding how she chose to approach her largely emotionless role. The interview is very brief at just under 4 minutes.

Similar in length (3:43) and content, though slightly more relaxed, is an interview with actor Hidetoshi Nishijima, who comes across as more down-to-earth than his female counterpart, but isn't given the screen time necessary to really expand on the answers he does give to the captioned questions.

Finally there is an interview with costume designer Yohji Yamamoto, which runs for a more substantial 10 minutes and is conducted in English, which he speaks very well. He is also either asked better questions or is clearer in his answers than his actor/director colleagues, and gives some interesting background into the film and his relationship with Takeshi. My favourite is about how Takeshi communicates ideas to him by giving him small objects rather than through open discussion.

The expected Takeshi Kitano filmography is rather good, with a four page biography followed by a listing of his films as both director and actor.

Last up there is the trailer (1:38), which is framed 1.85:1 non-anamorphic and a lower quality transfer than the main feature, but intriguingly done – selling a film such as this is no mean feat, and it's interesting to see how this task was approached.

summary

The audience for Dolls is definitely a specialist one and it has failed to play to substantial numbers either here or in its native Japan, though we managed a respectable sized audience when we screened it at the cinema, and many of those who attended were new to the director's work. Its slow pace, emotionally drained characters and downbeat tone are going to prove a problem for many viewers, but for the patient, adventurous audience this is a visually strikingly, arrestingly individualistic work, and, sandwiched between the more commercially minded Brother and Zatoichi, an artistically fascinating experiment from one of modern cinema's most uniquely talented directors.

Dolls
Doruzu

Japan 2002
113 mins
director
Takeshi Kitano
starring
Miho Kanno
Hidetoshi Nishijima
Tatsuya Mihashi
Kyoko Fukada

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby Stereo 2.0
languages
Japanese
subtitles
English
extras
Interviews with director, stars and costume designer
Textual essays on Bunraku theatre and playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu
Director's f ilmography
Trailer
distributor
Artificial Eye
review posted
15 December 2003

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See all of Slarek's reviews