★★★★☆After Hana-Bi and Kikujiro, Dolls is the third and final Blu-ray release from Third Window films in their collection of films by Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano. Dolls is arguably the strangest of the three films and undoubtedly the most beautiful, with cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima filling the screen with stunning compositions of colour and motion. Holding the anthology narrative together are Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Sawako (Miho Kanno). The pair were once engaged, before Matsumoto was forced by his parents to abandon her and marry his boss's daughter instead.
Distraught, Sawako attempts suicide and finds herself in a mental institute, before Matsumoto breaks her out and the two go on the run together, sleeping in a car and eating out of bins. To prevent the unstable Sawako from wandering off, Matsumoto ties a rope between them which over the course of the film, leads to the pair developing a folkloric notoriety, becoming known as the Bound Beggars. Their binding, starting as a thin orange thread symbolically becomes a thick, red rope. Their costumes, too, inexplicably change throughout the film, becoming increasingly elaborate and ultimately transforming into the traditional clothing worn by the figures in a Japanese puppet play, or bunraku.
These moments of visual symbolism risk feeling tonally odd, but Dolls' framing scenes with the bunraku situate the film as a fairy-tale; a motif which is repeated in the single-plain compositions of some of its most gorgeous sequences. Moreover, the fairy-tale framing helps audiences to accept some its more outlandish propositions - a woman who waits on a park bench for forty years for her lover to return is one example of romance preceding reality - but Kitano's sense of an overtly crafted reality, means that we are able to revel in Dolls' romance without feeling the need to pull back its curtain of artifice. Like all good fairytales, Dolls has a dark side: Nukui's (Tsutomu Takeshige) obsession with his pop idol Haruna Yamaguchi (Kyoko Fukada), for example, succeeds as both a disturbing, other-worldly fable and a meditation on the very real nature of obsessive fandom.
Kitano's sensibilities as a blackly-comic director serve the film well in these moments; where Kikujiro was at once melancholy and warm, Dolls is both affirming and profoundly sad. The director's treatment of his players as the eponymous dolls means that we can never quite forget that these characters are constructs on a figurative bunraku stage. Indeed, it is the unreality of the stage construct that lends their stories a transcendent symbolic power and the film itself its status as a gorgeous, moving and complex puppet-play come to life.
Christopher Machell | @MagnificenTramp