Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
2002, Japan
director: Takeshi Kitano

Two thirds of the way through Takeshi Kitano's Dolls, the images of distanced individuals begin to resonate with a profound but tragic calm. Kitano takes the tradition of Japanese puppet theater called bunraku and moves it into the present to tell three modern stories, each one about a man and woman who reach a doomed limbo, unable to be close and unable to be apart. Kitano could have told his stories simultaneously by cross-cutting, or he could have lined them up like three short films, but instead he follows the first story until it crosses one of the other stories, at which point the movie circles back like it's following a ribbon tied in a bow.

The knot at the center of the bow is so rich with imagery that Kitano seems for a moment to have abandoned narrative entirely and relaxed into a poem. The first story is about a man, Matsumoto, who leaves his fiancé, Sawako, for a woman whose family will give him a better standing in the community, which drives Sawako to madness. In her sorrow she doesn't recognize anyone, anymore, not even Matsumoto. The formerly engaged lovers can never be together after what has happened, but Matsumoto can't jettison his lover's memory as easily as he might have hoped, and so they are forever bound together, a psychological fact that Kitano visualizes by tying each of them to the end of a red rope which they drag behind them as they walk mournfully across the earth. Initially the rope is a clothesline that Matsumoto uses to keep Sawako from wandering into trouble while he's asleep, but later it becomes a thick braid. Their costumes gradually take on the traditional dress of bunraku dolls, and Sawako's face turns white and freezes into pained expressions like the painted face of her wooden counterpart.

Near the movie's center, the two walk past a lake. Shot from an extreme distance, they're a couple of specs on a hill, silhouettes crawling left to right while in the lake two ducks float in the same direction, traveling together, unconnected but inseparable. Sometimes the bound lovers walk side-by-side toward the camera and then halt together, as if they've hit a wall. They stand blank and weary, their shoulders drooping. Their loop of red rope has caught something on the ground and brought them to a standstill.

It's not always clear who's leading whom: as the saner of the two, Matsumoto guides Sawako through hazards, but he wouldn't be there at all if he weren't bound to her. On a beach, the pair pass a woman guiding a blind man, an analogy so apt that the scene seems abstract, and it becomes even more so when the camera stops following Matsumoto and Sawako for a moment and instead follows the blind man and his guide, who shortly reach someone else on the beach, a woman with a patch over one eye, the blind man and his guide merged into a single body. The symbolism is so heavy that it's a welcome surprise when these people on the beach grow into characters themselves, characters in a similar story which Kitano then detours to tell.

It's the story of a pop singer and her adoring fans. She needs them, and they need her, but they're connected at a distance, not by a red rope but by headphones, posters, buttons, autographs, picture books, and electric signs that display news headlines. And there's another story, about a yakuza boss with a connection to a woman who waits for him every day on a park bench. And there's a connection between a beggar in a wheelchair and the same yakuza boss, who is one of his benefactors.

The stories intertwine not dramatically but thematically. The bound lovers travel through spring, summer, fall, and winter, and Kitano uses a zoom lens repeatedly to place them in a flat frame of blood-red leaves or an expanse of snow. Each of the capsules lives in a stasis that ends only with death. Maybe. Blood is spilled in Dolls, but even where it isn't, a butterfly's wing is torn, a toy ball is smashed, and a red leaf is dropped and carried away by a stream. Kitano wrote, directed, and edited the movie, but he doesn't appear in it himself. It contains very little humor, but what it does have is wonderfully odd, such as the framing of a tiny toy ball in relation to a big car, a detail so delicate that — like the ducks in the lake — it could easily disappear on video. These human dolls are surrounded by a calm aura, the comfort of having someone with which to share a deep and prolonged sadness, a sadness anchored by an inability to share anything else.

San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival
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