Romance, tragedy and highly defined interactions between the characters are fundamental to the gestures and expression conveyed in Japanese traditional bunraku puppet theatre where the three puppeteers enact the role, which is narrated to and enhanced by shamisen music, portraying the puppets’ delicate motions and emotions. The visual style of these dolls and their facial features, together with their movement, is also intrinsic to Dolls, where Takeshi Kitano takes this cultural tradition (a puppet show bookends the film to enhance its narrative) and relates it artistically, dramatically and emotionally to a contemporary story. Modernity may have seemed to have surpassed old customs but Takeshi tells a tale that is resonant in a fantastical and moving way, depicted through a number of stories about love and loss, of romance, retribution and resolution.

Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima) has agreed to be married to the boss’s daughter, a decision that will surely offer fantastic prospects for his future career. Unfortunately he has already proposed to his long term girlfriend Sawako (Miho Kanno) but, with encouragement from his parents, manages to break it off. However just before the wedding ceremony he discovers that, upon hearing of his impending nuptials, Sawako attempted suicide (a central theme in many bunraku). Matsumoto runs from the wedding venue to be with the girl he loves. She has survived, but lost any intellectual abilities; her lack of awareness and incoherence means that she is unable to survive in the community. Matsumoto decides to take care of her and drives them both away from society. Like the characters in a bunraku he ties himself to her using a length of rope so they can walk together, mocked by passers-by, a new incarnation of the ‘bound beggars’, trudging through the landscape seeking themselves. They pass by many other people, some of whom also have unresolved relationship issues. Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi) is a yakuza boss who still dreams of the Saturday bento (picnic box) in the park he received from Ryoko (Chieko Matsubara) decades ago. Unbeknownst to him, she still arrives as their meeting spot, every week, just as she promised him. And Pop Idoru (pop idol) Haruna (Kyoko Fukada) discovers that stardom becomes a fickle mistress when an accident leaves her beauty scarred and she simply cannot face her fans, although perhaps blind devotee Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige) could perhaps help her regain some confidence.

In many ways Dolls is another Takeshi Kitano film about, like himself after enduring a serious motorcycle accident, people having to come to terms with dramatic changes in their lives, but he places this in a context that embraces the culture, tales and traditions of Japan and tries to integrate these with modern issues and values. It is notable as being one of the few films (like A Scene at the Sea [1991]) that does not feature him in an acting role, his involvement remaining purely behind the camera, but nevertheless taking on the functions of writer, director and editor. Again the editing is hugely important in the manner that he reveals fragments of the story to reveal different time-scapes and recognition of significance, here also linking the past with the present. There are scenes featuring yakuza and violence, but these are not depicted on screen; shown, instead, from a more emotional perspective, focussing on their consequences rather than their implementation.

Cinematically sumptuous, the art world of the titular bunraku dolls and their human counterparts is beautifully realised by contrasting the dramatic realism associated with the composition and shots of Kitano’s earlier work with the depiction of the main characters, reflected in the final sections of magical landscapes, traditional kimono coloured against snow was the inevitable tragedy inherent in many a bunraku conclusion draws near.

On the Blu-ray disc, there are a number of interviews, including those with Takeshi as well as Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yoji Yamamoto and a ‘making of’ feature which help highlight how this became a very different production in his canon. Visually stunning, always revealing and unlike anything else you’ve seen this is a welcome release of a very special and under-appreciated work.