A tough guy with a sentimental streak, prolific Japanese director Takeshi Kitano could pass as the Eastern answer to Clint Eastwood—he's famously stoic in his starring roles, yet capable of deep sensitivity behind the camera. His best films, like 1993's Sonatine or 1997's Fireworks, are radical in their stark juxtaposition of the violent and the serene: The distance between a yakuza getting chopsticks jammed into his eye and a loving couple at play can be a single cut. Lately, Kitano has settled into one mode or the other: If not for his unmistakably arrhythmic editing style, the syrupy-sweet Kikujiro would seem miles removed from bloody genre pictures like Brother or The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi. Kitano's gentle side reigns in Dolls, a gorgeous meditation on love and devotion, but the film's hypnotic tone and beautifully formalized color scheme makes it unlike anything he's done to date.
Inspired by the 17th-century Bunraku tradition of Japanese puppetry, in which three puppeteers control a character in unison and a single narrator (Kitano, in a sense) gives them voice, Dolls interweaves three stories with strong thematic connections. Each story deals with extreme expressions of the heart: When young businessman Hidetoshi Nishijima chooses to marry the boss' daughter to get ahead, his true love Miho Kanno attempts suicide and winds up near-catatonic in a hospital. Wracked with guilt and remorse, Nishijima abandons his new bride, kidnaps Kanno from the hospital, and takes off on a journey of reconciliation in which the two wander the countryside, connected by a long red cord. If anything, the other two stories are more astonishing in their tales of devotion, with one about an aging yakuza (Tatsuya Mihashi) who discovers his decades-past girlfriend still waiting for him at a park bench, and another about a devoted fan who blinds himself in order to court a disfigured pop star.
For all the intensity of emotion behind these characters' actions, little of it actually punctures the film's placid surface, and the trance-like atmosphere deliberately elides conventional dramatic tension. By way of demonstration, Dolls opens with a stolid Bunraku performance, as if asking viewers to dial down their expectations and drift along on its creeping current. Since the stories lack the overt emotional appeals of films like Kikujiro or Fireworks, it's left to Kitano's mesmerizingly beautiful images to carry the day, with exteriors that capture all four seasons in their full majesty. Always one to use words sparingly, Kitano knows that there's little to be said when pictures can do the talking.