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Cinema Signal:

No and Bunraku
Traditional Japanese theatre


. "Dolls"

This may not be the most boring film ever made, but it's probably safe to say its a strain on the attention span. Only a director who enjoys some cult status, it seems to me, would attempt such a thing as using Japanese Bunraku puppets for a model of human behavior while carrying on tragic romances as though they're in some parallel universe. This 2002 film now hitting DVD bins is imagined by Takeshi Kitano ("The Blind Swordsman Zatoichi" - 2003). For lovers of the exotic, the reflective, the stubbornly abstruse, it may pay off. It didn't for me.

After a short prelude in which a Bunraku tragedy is staged as a framework for what is to follow, three intersecting human stories are told simultaneously in a tedious 114 minutes of mystification. In the first, Sawako and boyfriend Matsumoto (Miho Kanno and Hidetoshi Nishijima) walk along public pathways, tied together with a red rope. This is meant for protection and identifies the pair as "'Bound Beggars,' aimless vagabonds to the outside world but desperate to find something forgotten," (according to the promo description).

In a virtual stupor that seems to signal their personal tragedy, they ply their way even as they are jeered by passing onlookers. In a flashback, the story starts when Matsumoto comes to the attention of his rich boss Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) and is selected to marry the man's attractive daughter. Sawako, his childhood sweetheart, upon hearing of this, attempts suicide rather than cope with the loss of her love. After being saved by a quick acting mother, Sawako loses her ability to speak -- an ability that wasn't overused in the first place. But, now, she's a virtual catatonic. As the wedding is about to begin, Matsumoto hears of Sawako's attempted suicide and abandons bride and ceremony. His destiny, now, is with Sawako, whom he proceeds to lead, tied to the rope, across cities and countryside. While this apparently symbolizes sacrifice and undying devotion, the passion it may be trying to express remains artificial -- its extended one-note motif tortuous. Not a journey to join in on.

The other stories contain a bit more activity, though "action" would be stretching it a bit. A cute hip hop singer, Haruna Yamaguchi (Ky“ko Fukada) is adored by a following of fans. Two men in particular express their feelings to her personally. Before she can respond in any way, she suffers severe injuries to her face in a traffic accident and refuses to be seen again in public. Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige) proves his adoration by cutting his eyes with a razor blade to express empathy toward her through sacrifice and, blind, is then permitted to visit the recluse. Is this a relationship that's going anywhere? Not if Kitano has anything to do with it. But, we get it. Again, devotion and passion from a distance.

Finally, there's Hiro and Ryoko (Kanji Tsuda and Yuuko Daike). At a time when they're in their 30's, they meet on a park bench. When they do, Ryoko prepares a bento box lunch for Hiro, which he greatly enjoys. One day he decides to leave town in order to pursue his destiny. As he departs, she cries out that she'll remain faithful to him by bringing him lunch every day until he returns to their bench. We next see him decades later when, in his seventies Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi), has become a yakuza boss with ex-samurai protecting him against his enemies. One day, on a walk, he returns to the park and discovers the similarly aged Ryoko (Chieko Matsubara), waiting on the bench with his lunch box. He's stunned to realize the absurd meaning of this. Some days later he returns for his last bite of destiny.

If puppet theatre is intended to reflect human life and experience, and if Kitano's intention is to turn it around by reflecting puppet theatre with stylistically constrained human behavior, then I have to say I find it a sophomoric exercise. I can stretch beyond the literal in order to deteect that there's symbolism going on, but the entertainment or instructional values remain, to my clarity-seeking western mind, hidden, inscrutable, ambiguous and arcane. Melancholy and social strangulation are the conditions -- if not the definition -- of love? The concept is pretentious and as hollow as the puppets.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Miho Kanno and Hidetoshi Nishijima
Walking, in a ritual of neverending love.


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