Dir: Takeshi Kitano. Jap. 2002. 113 mins.

Takeshi Kitano returns to Venice, where he won the Golden Lion with Hana-Bi in 1997, with Dolls, a film about three star-crossed lovers. The film's unusual 'bunraku' (Japanese puppet play) structure, in which the protagonists of a puppet love story come to life, may appeal to Western audiences who like their Asian cinema traditional and exotic. Others, however, will balk at the crude symbolism, the principal couple's endless tramp toward a foregone conclusion and the awkward fit between the feudal-era story of tragic love and the realities of present-day Japan. This disconnect may not be apparent to foreigners, but may make more than a few in the Japanese audience wonder what century the director is living in.

Five years ago Kitano was being hailed as the most important Japanese director in a generation. Since then, however, he has struggled both artistically and commercially. His 1999 road movie Kikujiro had mixed reviews and his 2001 gang epic Brother, his Hollywood calling card, made only a modest splash at the box office. With Dolls, Kitano breaks with much of his cinematic past, particularly the cool, savage violence that, tinged with black humour and presented in an austere minimalist style, first brought him to international attention.

The film begins with a performance of The Courier Of Love (Meido No Hikyaku), a 17th-century bunraku play based on the true story of a young money courier, Chubei. In love with the beautiful courtesan Umegawa, and goaded by a friend, he breaks the seal on a shipment to show he has enough money to buy his lover's freedom. Realising he has committed a capital crime, Chubei flees with Umegawa, but the pair are pursued and end up committing suicide.

Switch to the present. Under parental pressure, Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima), an elite businessman, breaks off his engagement with the sweet-but-delicate Sawako (Miho Kanno) to marry the company president's daughter. On the day of the wedding, he hears that Sawako has attempted suicide and been committed to a mental hospital. Abandoning his bride, Matsumoto rushes to Sawako's side, finds her a gibbering wreck and they escape. Thus begins a long odyssey that ends with the couple tied together with a red rope (Matsumoto cannot let the impulsive Sawako out of his sight) and wandering forlornly through the countryside as the seasons change - and death closes in.

To give the audience relief from his couple's long trudge to a self-appointed doom, Kitano has woven in two other stories of love gone wrong. One concerns an elderly gang boss (Tatsuya Mihashi) who discovers that the lover of his youth (Chieko Matsubara) is still faithfully making a box lunch for him every day, decades after he abandoned her. Another focuses on the pathetic fan (Tsutomu Takeshige) of a fatuous pop singer (Kyoko Fukada), who puts out his eyes when he hears that she has damaged her face in an auto wreck and is retiring.

There are bright spots amid the gloom, including the gorgeous nature photography of cinematographer Katsumi Yanagishima, the resplendent costumes by fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto and, most of all, the artistry of the bunraku puppeteers, whose astonishingly vivid performers outshine Kitano's stars. Dolls is aptly titled, but it cries out to be either a period drama - or a documentary.

Prod cos: Bandai Visual, Tokyo FM, TV Tokyo, Office Kitano
Japan dist:
Shochiku, Office Kitano
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Exec prod:
Masayuki Mori, Takio Yoshida
Katsumi Yanagishima
Prod des:
Norihiro Isoda
Joe Hisaishi
Main cast:
Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima, Tatsuya Mihashi, Chieko Matsubara, Ryoko Fukada, Tsutomu Takeshige