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Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2002

Fate's puppets on a string



Dolls

Rating: * 1/2
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 12

When Takeshi Kitano won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1997 for "Hana-Bi," he was already being hailed as the most important Japanese director of the decade, with comparisons ranging from Ozu to Scorsese. Since his triumph at Venice, however, Kitano has been struggling both artistically and commercially. His road movie, "Kikujiro" (1999), got mixed reviews (David Rooney of Variety called it "klutzy" and "treacly"; Kevin Thomas of Los Angeles Times: a "totally irresistible" heart-tugger). His gang epic "Brother" (2000), which was shot in L.A. with an international cast, made only a modest box-office splash at home and abroad, though it was intended as Kitano's calling card to the mutliplexes of the world.

News photo
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Miho Kanno in Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls"

With "Dolls," a film about three pairs of star-crossed lovers, Kitano is making a break with much of his cinematic past, particularly the cool, savage violence that, tinged with sly black humor and presented in an austere minimalist style, first brought him to international attention. At this year's Venice Film Festival, where the film screened in competition, critical opinion was once again divided, with some calling it a masterpiece, others an exercise in cheap Orientalism. The nays had it -- "Dolls" left without a prize -- and I found myself agreeing with them.

The film's unusual structure -- a bunraku puppet play segues into a modern love story whose protagonists are the puppets brought to life -- has its interest, especially for those who like their Asian cinema traditional and exotic. But I balked at literal-minded symbolism (a dead butterfly standing for dashed hopes, etc.), the tired sentimentalism of the principal couple's lonely journey to a foreordained oblivion and the awkward fit between the feudal-era story of tragic love and the realities of present-day Japan, where young people choose marital partners as freely as they do charge accounts.

The third act, in particular, is like "Way Down East" in a Japonesque mode, complete with an interminable trudge through the snow, but no heart-stopping leaps across the ice floes. D.W. Griffith could at least evoke pathos; Kitano in "Dolls" is the director as technician, who is more concerned with costumes and cinematography than the story he happens to be telling. He's jiggling the strings expertly enough -- but there's no life in his puppets.

"Dolls" begins with a performance of "Meido no Hikyaku," a bunraku play by Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), based on the true story of a young money courier, Chubei, whose love for the beautiful courtesan Umegawa takes a tragic turn when he is accused of the capital crime of seal- breaking and forced to flee, his lover accompanying him. The authorities are in hot pursuit, however, and the couple ends up committing suicide.

Switch to the present. Under pressure from his parents, Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an elite businessman, breaks off his engagement with the sweet-but-delicate Sawako (Miho Kanno) to marry the company president's daughter. On the day of the wedding, he hears that Sawako has attempted suicide and been committed to a mental hospital. Abandoning his bride, Matsumoto rushes to Sawako's side, finds her a gibbering wreck and escapes with her in his car. Thus begins a long odyssey that ends with the couple tied together with a red rope (Matsumoto is unable to let the dangerously impulsive Sawako out of his sight) and wandering picturesquely but forlornly through the countryside as the seasons change -- and death closes in.

To give the audience relief from his couple's slow walk to a self-appointed doom, Kitano has woven in two other stories of love gone wrong. One concerns an elderly gang boss (Tatsuya Mihashi) who discovers that the lover of his youth (Chieko Matsubara) is still faithfully making a box lunch for him every day, decades after he abandoned her. (Like the ill-fated Sawako, she has gone batty.)

Another focuses on the pathetic fan (Tsutomu Takeshige) of a fatuous pop singer (Kyoko Fukada), who takes desperate measures when he hears she has damaged her face in an auto wreck and is retiring. (Enough to say they involve piercing parts of the body that would be the last choices of all but the deranged.)

In "Dolls," love is either deadly or maddening to one or both of the parties involved. This sort of high romanticism -- love as the most dangerous of emotions -- has a long tradition in Japan and elsewhere, but Kitano uses it as yet another way of avoiding the subject of real adult relationships in the current millennium.

Interesting, isn't it, that almost the only truly connected couples in his earlier films are either deaf (the surfers in "Ichiban Shizukana Umi"), mute (the ex-cop and his wife in "Hana-Bi" ) or male (the two goofy bikers in "Kikujiro")?

There are bright spots amid the gloom, including the gorgeous nature photography of cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, the resplendent costumes by fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto and, most of all, the art of the bunraku puppeteers, whose astonishingly lifelike performers outshine Kitano's stars. "Dolls" is aptly titled, but it cries out to be either a period drama -- or a bunraku documentary.



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