Back in the day Takeshi Kitano was almost exclusively known for his Yakuza films (think Hana-bi) in the West. He tried to break with that image when he released Kikujiro but apparently the shift wasn't near brutal enough to convince his fans. So Kitano pushed a little further and came up with Dolls, which then turned out to be my undisputed favorite film in Kitano's oeuvre.
Dolls wasn't just a reaction aimed at the people who were wondering if Kitano could do anything beyond directing Yakuza films though. Critics had also been asking aloud whether Kitano would ever be able to direct a more colorful film in terms of actual color palette. I guess he showed them with Dolls, which even by today's standards is still one of the most stunningly colorful films I've ever come across. Between the use of the most colorful bits of the Japanese landscape and hiring Yohji Yamamoto to do the costumes, Kitano went all the way with his colorful tragedy.
The film is set around three different stories that intersect occasionally but never really come together. For better or for worse, these three stories play like three short stories, though they all share a common theme. Each short tells a tragic love story. There's the Yakuza boss that discovers his first girlfriend has been showing up in the park they used to meet to share lunch with him and there's the story of the pop idol fan who mutilates himself to join the pain of his idol.
But the central piece of this film is without a doubt the story of the bound beggars. After Matsumoto ditched Sawako to marry his boss's daughter, he repents right before walking up to the altar and sets off to find Sawako. He finds out that a failed suicide attempt left her an empty shell, but Matsumoto is determined to save his relationship with Sawako and the both of them set out to mend their broken hearts.
When Kitano said he was going to make a colorful film, he really wasn't kidding. Colors fly off the screen, following the patterns of the four seasons. From the beautiful sakura-filled orchards in spring to the multicolored tree leafs in autumn, each season brings a wealth of magnificent shots. The scenery plays a vital part in this film, but Kitano's editing and keen eye are just as crucial to Dolls' overwhelming beauty. The only point of critique I found with this latest viewing is that some camera movements appear to be a little over-constructed, but that's really a minor irk considering the abundance of landmark shots in here.
The soundtrack too is of exceptional beauty. Once again it is scored by Joe Hisaishi (like so many early Kitano films) and it's without a doubt the best score he ever made. Hisaishi only needs a couple of notes to create such an overpowering and inviting atmosphere that it's almost impossible to not give in to all the beauty that's laid before you. The score works miracles with the images, combining into a perfect foundation for the tragic love stories.
Can't really fault the acting either. Kitano himself doesn't appear in front of the camera this time around (he even left many of his regulars out), but with stellar performances of Nishijima, Mihashi and Miho Kanno he isn't really missed. Nishijima and Kanno in particular are perfect in their roles. Without any dialogue they make the most of their story, relying solely on body language to get their emotions across. If you're not a fan of the faux-stoic style of Japanese acting you might miss out though.
Dolls is a near-perfect emotional trip combined with near-perfect styling. Apart from all the trickery and foolery though, the film has a warm heart that surfaces in many of its key scenes. Especially the ones with Kanno and Nishijima, many which instantly became a part of my ready-to-be-quoted collection. The scene with the pink toy is otherworldly, so is the one with the wind toys, but it's the moment when Kanno finally remembers (shifting her facial expression from blank, to happy, to sad) that gets to me every time. One of the most beautiful scenes ever put on film.
This film isn't so much about the actual plot lines as it's about the emotion that stems from them. Dolls is a tragedy wrapped up in a very stylish and atmospheric cocoon, allowing the audience to be swamped by its sadness, but without ever letting go off the beauty that surrounds it. It's not a very depressing film, even though there are definitely some heart-breaking scenes. Dolls is clearly a film that Kitano needed to make in order to proceed as a director. For me it's the best thing he ever did, which puts it right up there with my favorite films ever. A definite must-see.