Director: Takeshi Kitano (also writer)
I can’t imagine how Takeshi Kitano’s obituary headline will read. Perhaps alphabetically? “Takeshi Kitano, Actor, Author, Comedian, Deliberately Vexatious Video Game Designer, Director, Game Show Ringleader, Painter, Radio Personality, Screenwriter, and Tap Dancer, Not So Much Dies as Transcends the Plane of Space and Time as We Understand It at 145.”
Mind you, these are not sequential hats. I believe there have been periods during which the man heaped them all upon his head like a Japanese Bartholomew, and today at age 69 he can still be seen sporting more than a few. I’m not sure whether we have an American equivalent, except maybe Superman. (The UK only came close when they gave Hermione Granger that time travel widget.)
Kitano has long been a favorite director of mine, although he’s released only a small number of films that I love and even fewer that I would call particularly good. With Dolls—barely outside both categories—he interweaves three tales of enduring, unconventional love that most directors would tell in five minutes, and commits forty minutes to each. He should have gone with twenty-five.
The tentpole story involves a young corporate flunky who leaves it to his parents to break things off with his girlfriend so that he can marry the company president’s daughter. The betrayal turns his beloved’s mind to pea soup, and, racked with guilt, he bails on the wedding and absconds with his catatonic cherie. After futile efforts to care for her as legal guardian, he voluntarily reduces himself to her state, binding them waist-to-waist with a cherry red rope and penitently walking the earth for, it seems, all eternity. In their wandering, the defunct lovers cross paths with the other protagonists: a construction worker obsessed with a J-pop princess who’s disfigured in a car accident, and a lovelorn yakuza don seeking the embers of an old flame. As if by some sort of romantic Dead Zone property, the brief proximity of our now-mythic vagabonds to these secondary characters seems to invoke visions of their hearts’ ordeals, channeling us from one emotional stream to another. The transition is quiet and balletic. It is also neatly in tune with the “hyperlink” movement that was then all the rage (see Iñárritu’s Amores perros, Soderbergh’s Traffic, etc.), but with a zazen posture and a folktale twist.
This synopsis is more straightforward than Kitano presents things. Flashback and flashforward being relative terms, it’s difficult to apply them to an understanding of events in Dolls. Much of the movie takes place in recollections. Memories ebb into one another until we are gently coaxed into setting aside our chronology preoccupation and merging with the soft tide of sensations that dictates the movie’s structure, attending to each moment as its own present. The movie’s internal clock follows a conception of time toward which, to be unapologetically racist, few artistic cultures beyond Japan’s seem to have made significant strides. What I mean is, many other films from this neck of the woods buy their watches from the same shop (including a good number of Kitano’s own) and thus come out ticking to the same Zen tock, deflating its worth in Dolls and depressing its impact.
Though it took him years to be acknowledged in Japan as a director (or perhaps to find a font small enough to squeeze the distinction onto his CV), Kitano has since the late ‘90s been dubbed the “true successor” to Kurosawa, forever the nation’s putative pinnacle of cinematic genius, their default contender in the unofficial contest for world’s greatest. Assuming this citation extends to a stylistic comparison, I think it’s a little unfair to both parties. If you tried a color-by-numbers treatment to parse the layers of meaning in a Kurosawa shot, you’d probably need to go out and buy a crayon booster pack. Kitano’s shots are typically narrower in ambition—no less sharp, but simpler on the dissection table. He has a manner all his own, of course; it has so long attracted me chiefly on account of its stillness and quietude, qualities more akin to Kurosawa’s contemporary (and, as cinema lore has it, counterpart), Ozu. The likeness generally excludes subject matter, with the younger director turning these techniques on sanguinary and nihilistic yakuza tragedies, although the result is more often than not an Ozu-ish serenity even in the midst of eye-popping brutality (literally). Kitano is like the Buddha trying to make himself flinch.
Dolls has one foot and both of its piercing porcelain eyes in the “not” side of that division. Among Kitano’s other works, its mood, themes, and relative lack of mob slayings (there are only two) are most comparable with A Scene at the Sea. Stylistically, however, I would argue it has more in common with his luminous Hana-bi, another elliptical portrait of rumination and the swift current of time (should we be duped into seeing it that way). All three movies inherit from Ozu the ellipse, a maneuver that blinks casually over momentous plot points, reminding us that gold is in the dirt and not in the mountain. Dolls implements that meditative play with competence, but fails to spread the inherent philosophy to the rest of the steps on its path. Rather than watching a scene be, Kitano seems to stare it down. Rather than allowing events to flow through the lens, we feel him clinging to their meaning, taxing symbolic value out of a leaf on the water and a trampled butterfly. Where a movie like Hana-bi learns to accept, Dolls continually shies away.