Dolls is no doubt a cult classic of Japanese cinema and if it’s not, it should be (well IMHO anyway).
Everything about Dolls is beautiful. From cinematography to story. There are dolls to begin with and admittedly the first sequence is a bit if a trial unless you like Kabuki (?) theatre acted out by puppets (yes, read dolls). The dolls, of course, are beautiful and the sequence does set up the stunning quiet/cold aesthetic of the film.
There are three separate stories, one being the bound beggars, the other two tell of lost love, loneliness and obsession. The stories twine in and out of each other which is cleverly done by the director. He’s not out to make you catch all the strings but they are there.
The themes are those of selfishness and its outcomes, as well as love lost, and the extreme paths we find ourselves on in our lives because of decisions that seem small at the time. I am sure there is much more to be found if you are Japanese or have an understanding of Japanese culture or history. I don’t, but in the end I still thought this was a great film.
The dolls play a symbolic role throughout as we watch these stories unfold. Through the still beauty of the bound beggars, through the picture perfect backdrops to the characters lives (Japan’s countryside at its most amazing). I’m pretty sure the director made Dolls as a love letter to Japan.
There is one ongoing storyline of the bound beggars which “ties” together the film (“bind” “tie” , oh, the poetic symbolism!!). Our beggars wander through the film, through years, through seasons and throughout Japan I should imagine (they do a lot of walking). They are beautiful even though past acts were not and their red cord is even beautiful. By the end of the film there is genuine affection for these two even though they barely say a word. Other characters are less likeable but you get that.
This is a very slow film that takes a long time to unfold but it really is worth it. There are subtitles so don’t watch when you are sleepy! Just be warned that once you finish watching Dolls you will probably be immediately overcome by the need to book a holiday to Japan in the spring, then one for the summer, then another for the autumn but probably not for winter that snow looks cold… beautiful but cold.