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Alias: Season Three

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They say that each movement in Kabuki dance has a particular meaning. If that’s true, then I probably couldn’t appreciate a Kabuki dance just by watching it. So when Dolls opened on a Japanese Bunraku play (acted out by three-foot-tall puppets, each controlled by two or more puppeteers) I feared I’d be lost. Do audiences have to know how to read this art form, or know the specific play, in order to get what director Takeshi Kitano was going for?

The answer is no, you don’t have to be an expert in Japanese puppetry. The stylistic parallels between the Bunraku play and the movie’s three main storylines were apparent even to a westerner like me. The melodrama of the Bunraku introduces the melodrama of the film, and the colorful, distilled style of the play allows Kitano and his production designer Norihiro Isoda to paint with a broad and vibrant brush.

Three Goes into One

Watch the movie, and save the DVD extras for later
Watch the movie, and save the DVD extras for later

After the short introductory scene of the play, Dolls launches into the first of its three main story lines. It stems from a wedding of love being cancelled so that a wedding of family alliances can happen. The jilted bride from the first wedding is destroyed by the news of the second wedding. When news of her mental collapse reaches the groom on his (new) wedding day, he too is destroyed. They amble through the movie, shells of their former selves, tied together at the waist with a red cord.

They walk, zombielike, past the other two stories. In one, a retirement-aged gangster who had left his girlfriend waiting on a bench, years ago when his career started, wonders if he might still be able to find her. In the other, a devoted fan of a pop singer finds a horrific way to finally meet her in person.

Although the three stories are held together by the thinnest of threads, Kitano edits with such a sense of power and form that you might not notice the transitions. At the very least, you assume the stories all link together, a la Pulp Fiction. Although that isn’t exactly the case — they’re not as tightly linked as the stories in Pulp FictionDolls feels surprisingly like one coherent whole.

Cut & Dye

Even within a story, Kitano’s editing is forceful. He will repeat a shot for emphasis. He repeats one shot three times, each just different enough to make you look more closely. He will tell stories in flashbacks, jumping around in time in dense little storytelling packets. By putting the pieces out of order, he allows us to make the connections, which personally engages us in the story.

Added to this bold texture is a gorgeously bright color palette. As the bound lovers walk through the seasons, their costumes change to match. Walking through the pale white blossoms of spring, they offset the scene in their bright, sunny colors. As they walk under a streetlight in snowy winter, their costumes have become those of the dolls — deep blue silk, ancient, formal, traditional, and no longer literal. Over the sound of a gunshot in the gangster’s story, we see a bright, blood-red wound that turns out to have been an autumn leaf floating in a river.

Augmenting the texture and color is the minor key of tragic love. Sometimes the melody of plot is frantic, sometimes it is as slow as the dead walking, but that bittersweet minor third is in every chord.

DVD Extras

The Palm Pictures DVD of Dolls is probably your first chance to see this film. It was released in 2002, and since then has mostly played film festivals and the art-house circuit. But the DVD is not the best way to see Dolls for the first time. Dolls is the kind of movie that soaks in slowly, and if you watch the DVD too casually or the extras too soon, much of the mystery gets explained away.

The interviews with Kitano and his supporting filmmakers (the two lead actors and the costume designer) are actually quite informative. But the people are too matter-of-fact about decisions that, in the movie, seem artful and weighty. Hearing that Kitano’s inclusion of a ceramic angel was practically a whim takes away its thought-provoking resonance in the film.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want filmmakers to become even more coy than they are when answering questions about their techniques. It’s just that for this particular film, I wish I had waited a week between seeing the movie and watching the extra features. Dolls is a work of art that transcends its making. Its whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And by simply looking at the parts, as presented in the DVD extras, you might miss the whole that emerges when you see beyond those ingredients.

Picture and Sound

It is not surprising that such a recent film with such impressive visuals would be treated well on DVD. Another reviewer who had apparently seen video transfers from other countries says that Palm Pictures’ disc is among the better releases. The film is presented in “widescreen” aspect ratio — the package doesn’t specify the numbers but it’s about 1.8:1 on my computer. The print is very clean and the colors are rich and even.

The Japanese soundtrack can be played in 5.1 Dolby digital or in Dolby stereo (there are, of course, English subtitles). The movie sounds best when Joe Hisaishi’s slow, pretty score is allowed to take its time.