Thursday, February 11, 2010

Film for Lovers: Dolls

As we all know, the world is afflicted with many terrible, corrosive, addictive things. But there are none more terrible than the near-suicidal thirst for the next part of my Film for Lovers series. Yes, I know, it's all my fault - I got you hooked on the junk, and now it's up to me to get you your fix. We'll get you clean someday.

For part four of the five, we take a look at Takeshi Kitano's heartrending Dolls, which he himself considers his most violent film despite its utter lack of on-screen violence.

It was actually this trailer that originally drew my attention to the film, since it was included on Palm Pictures' release of the similarly amazing Last Life in the Universe, which I wrote about during last year's Film for Lovers feature. Takeshi Kitano is regarded as one of Japan's very best modern filmmakers, and Dolls is but one of his remarkable films. One critic even named him the "true successor" to Akira Kurosawa. Though to the Japanese public, even more than as a director, he's known as a comedian and TV host. To say the least, he's had an incredibly prolific entertainment career, from stellar filmmaking to all sorts of goofy comedy - even acting under the stage name "Beat Takeshi" (ビートたけし) in some of his films. Obviously, this falls into the category of his serious film work.

Like Chungking Express, Dolls is comprised of several stories, except in its case, the three are told in an interwoven manner as opposed to contained and sequentially. The film's first ten minutes or so consist of a Bunraku puppet theater performance. A key framing element for the film, tying in with the title. To Kitano, the stories told in Dolls are live-action Bunraku theater, with the actors as the symbolic puppets. The theater form is noted in particular for its stories of lovers' suicides. This should tell you what sort of tone to expect, as well as make it quite clear why this sort of puppet theater hasn't exactly caught on in the west. We tend to be more comfortable with puppets entertaining and educating our children - we don't really want them knowing the dark places Cookie Monster must have gone when he was first told that cookies were a "sometimes" food.

The central story around which Dolls revolves is that of Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and Sawako (Miho Kanno), two young lovers engaged to be married. When Matsumoto's boss wants him to marry his daughter, he finds himself under a tremendous amount of pressure to do so, and so he breaks things off with Sawako. Soon after, Matsumoto learns that Sawako had attempted suicide following their breakup, but survived and lost her mind. Without a word, he walks out of his wedding, takes Sawako from the hospital, and leaves his life behind with her. He faces overwhelming heartbreak in that the two could no longer communicate and she seemed to have no idea who he was, having reverted to a vacant, childlike mental state. After running out of money, unable to control Sawako's wandering, Matsumoto connects the two of them with a 30-foot red cord and the two begin to wander the country aimlessly, developing notoriety as the "bound beggars."

The second story focuses on Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige) and Haruna (Kyoko Fukada). Nukui is a young man in his late twenties with little going on in his life, living alone and working on a road crew, sustaining himself through his obsession with teen pop star Haruna. He listens to her albums, buys her posters, and attends her concerts and all her public appearances and signings. One day, Haruna gets into a disfiguring car accident, losing her left eye, and decides to withdraw from public entirely, not wanting anyone to see her. Nukui, determined to demonstrate his devotion to her, takes one last look at her poster, commits her face to memory, and blinds himself.

The third story moves into more familiar territory for Kitano, telling a tale involving a yakuza. Aging yakuza boss Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) begins to think about his youth again as death grows closer. He remembers his old girlfriend, Ryoko (Chieko Matsubara), who he'd left behind to seek his fortune, promising to return when he could support a better life for them. She promised to wait for him in the park with lunch every Saturday from then on. Returning to the park an old man, Hiro finds an elderly Ryoko still waiting and agrees to wait with her until her fiance returns.

These stories of uncompromising devotion - love at its most extreme and painful - only occasionally connect, Matsumoto and Sawako wandering by the others a few times, the characters oblivious to each other. As the film moves toward its climax, each of these stories come to a close. Are their endings all heartrendingly tragic? You'll have to check it out to see for yourself.

As I mentioned previously, Kitano called the film his most violent in an interview with The Guardian a few years back. He'd set out to make a film without violence, only to create his most emotionally violent film yet. While he'd become known for his work in yakuza cinema, where suffering and death were expected, Kitano brings something much more challenging and painful to the table in Dolls, each of its characters ordinary and human. To Kitano, violence against yakuza is acceptable, as they have it coming as violent gangsters themselves. But in Dolls, we're presented with star-crossed lovers undeserving of the profound suffering they live and love with - and all of them brought it on themselves. The life-changing consequences to decisions made by people in love take center stage in all three of the stories.

This slow-moving, minimalist film is one of the few I'd describe as close to perfect. The cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima is absolutely breathtaking, with many shots that bring the gorgeous scenery to life with vivid color as the seasons pass over the course of the film. And the celebrated Joe Hisaishi provided yet another memorable soundtrack for a Kitano film, though unfortunately this was his last, as the two had a falling out over their work on the film. The visuals and music only serve to elevate the raw emotion of the film to new heights.

The conflict with Hisashi is regarded as one of the film's flaws - while it still serves the film beautifully, Kitano was unsatisfied with it. Likewise, while the film's costuming serves the story fantastically, Kitano's vision for the film conflicted with that of costume designer Yohji Yamamoto. Kitano wanted realistic costuming for each of the characters, while Yamamoto had a more surrealistic vision in mind. Within the film, you can see where both of them were coming from. The stories of the fan and the yakuza bleakly realistic in their portrayal. Matsumoto and Sawako's story, however, is comparatively quite surreal and absolutely layered with abstract symbolism.

At its heart, Dolls is an incredible work of cinema - even despite its flaws and conflicts in production - and one of Kitano's most complex films. Given its deep Japanese cultural roots and symbolism, it may come off as difficult for many westerners to initially digest (Especially given the Bunraku opening sequence.), but the stories being told, as deeply melodramatic as they are, are universal tales of love at its most intense and tragic. Not a film to watch if you're looking for something cheery, but very much akin to theater's great lovers' tragedies - culturally universal stories of love and devotion nearly unheard of in the real world.

Tomorrow, Film for Lovers 2010 wraps with something much more recent, familiar, and fun! And also geared more toward the cynics out there.

 And now, until the next one, enjoy some incredible music by Joe Hisashi from a previous stellar Kitano film, Kikujiro. (Kikujiro no Natsu in Japanese - literally "Kikujiro's Summer.")

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