The cognitive disconnect in regard to—and perhaps at the deliberate hands of—Takeshi Kitano grows inexorably wider with Dolls, his 2002 adaptation of several Chikamatsu stories that has garnered the wrath of his yakuza-thriller-built fan base. That Dolls is mawkish seems undeniable, but is it mawkish like, say, Magnificent Obsession, or like You Light Up My Life? Like traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet theater or contemporary Japanese soap opera? Kitano’s point may well be that the difference is small potatoes. Dolls is often so caricatured in its efforts at sentimental heartbreak that the upshot is as hopelessly ironic as the pink paper butterfly one of his tragic heroines watches get run over by a truck.
Opening with a Bunraku performance (a haunting cultural creation, in which the puppeteers are all visible, most of them in eyeless black hoods, more or less creating a dance between human and doll) and updating the 16th-century tales more or less as Kieslowski overhauled the Ten Commandments, Dolls trips through three intercut stories of love and madness: A careerist bails on a corporate-approved marriage and rescues his erstwhile fiancée from an asylum, after which the two walk in a tandem coma through the film until they literally fall off a cliff. An aging yakuza returns after half a century to the deranged lover who’s been waiting for him on a park bench ever since. The fan of a crash-scarred pop star blinds himself so he won’t look upon her flawed beauty, and they find communion.
The metaphoric reference points between the Bunraku figures and the characters are too obvious by half—Kitano might’ve played it safer by having the entire film performed by puppets, or animated by legendary stop motion–ist Kihachiro Kawamoto. But Dolls risks the bank on symbology as gaudy as teen anime and as heavy as a stone temple. Who’s the puppeteer? Hiding in plain sight like a Bunraku master, Kitano experiments with what passes for totemic theater in the new mediasphere: pop clichés, plunging emotional cues, mass-produced stories, pink paper butterflies.