Based on the themes and aesthetics of Bunraku, traditional Japanese puppet theater, "Dolls" is a deliberate attempt to blend an ancient Japanese art form with modern technology and sensibilities.
Like "Double Suicide," another Japanese film based on Bunraku, the film begins with the puppets on stage being manipulated by their handlers, then transitions intolive actors. Also in common with "Double Suicide," the film is highly stylistic and modern while retaining the pace and tone of the old-fashioned story telling.
"Dolls" in all covers three stories: Matsumoto and Sawako, the happy couple who's meddling parents as well as their own poor choices leads to tragedy. Hiro, the stereotypical aging Yakuza gangster, kind to children yet ruthless to his enemies, seeking to find a love that was lost to him long ago. Haruna, the once popular singing idol, who's features were marred in an accident and is now lonely and alone, allowing no one to see her face.
As with most Bunraku stories, each is a tale of the tragedy of love, and how exquisite love is often accompanied by exquisite pain. The agony and the ecstasy. But because this is Japan, these fierce emotions are bottled up inside the characters, who show their outward masks attempting to betray nothing of their true feelings. The true story is only available to those who can read between the lines.
In the end, however, what drives "Dolls" is not the story, but the artistry of Kitano's camera. Some of the splendid scenes and colors in "Fireworks" find fruition in "Dolls." He claims that each shot can be framed as a piece of art. The changing colors reflects the traditional Japanese aesthetic of the four seasons, and of the changeability of nature and life. It is a beautiful film.
Some have difficulty accepting Kitano Takeshi as anything other than a violent action director, and those people might have a hard time with the slow pace and brilliant images of "Dolls." It is definitely not going to be everyone's favorite, but it is one of mine.