Takeshi Kitano is one of the most popular personalities from Japan at present, although his directorial oeuvre is not seen in the same critical stance as former Japanese greats like Kurosawa or Ozu. Though Kitano is multi-talented, he is more famous for his acting roles – it also helps that he mostly plays the main character in his movies. Strangely enough, in Japan he is not known so much for his movies, but more for his work as a game show host, comedian, baseball commentator, writer and so on. He appears almost daily on Japanese television. As a result of his popular persona, his first movies weren’t taken so seriously in Japan, but that changed when Kitano won a Golden Lion in Venice in 1997 for his seventh feature film, Hana-Bi. Suddenly, his movies (even his older ones) became box office hits in Japan.

Kitano has now made Dolls, his tenth movie, and the third, (following Scene at the Sea [1991] and Kids Return [1996]} in which he doesn’t appear in front of the camera. Dolls tells three love stories interwoven with each other, although the theme is loose, more atmospheric than thematic. Although all three stories stand on their own, through the coincidental encounter of the protagonists, everything is interlinked.

In the first story the young Matsumoto is chosen by his company’s president as a fitting man to marry his daughter. It is a honourable match, but he has another girl. Put under pressure by his parents, he leaves his girlfriend, and real love, Sawaka. On his wedding day he finds out that Sawaka tried to kill herself and survived with heavy brain damage. He instantly rushes to pick her up from the hospital and leaves his life behind. The couple run away, but have nowhere to go and become beggars bound together by a red ball and string. Their love is a hopeless situation, and they fall off a cliff and end up hanging there, suspended.

The second story is about an ageing yakuza boss. When he was young he had a girlfriend who always brought him lunch on Saturdays at the same time on the same bench. When he left her, she told him she would wait for him and would continue to bring lunch packages. Thirty years later, he takes a chance and goes to the bench on a Saturday and finds out that she still goes there every Saturday. Both have a chance to start anew, but only for a short time before he is gunned down in the park, in searching for his old love he made himself vulnerable and went out without his customary bodyguards.

The Japanese pop idol Haruna Maraguchi and her biggest fan Nukui are the main characters in the third story. One day Maraguchi has a car accident and survives with a disfigured face. She instantly stops her career and don’t want to be seen by anyone anymore. As Nukui still wants to be with her, he cuts out his eyes to become blind, but, unfortunately gets run over by a car as he can’t see anymore; another extreme display of undying love! However, these situations are softened by the film being framed by traditional Japanese Bunraku puppet play, which suggests that everybody is a puppet, a doll. And we all have strings of our fate.

Dolls is Kitano’s quietest and most accomplished film so far. The opulent colour scheme is most evident in the costumes and sets, which use nature symbolically to evoke the four seasons. In doing so, Kitano evokes the idea of time passing, while true love runs brighter and more enduring. Given the unhappy consequences for many of the love-struck protraganists, this may lead the viewer to conclude that the idea of love here, although lasting, is bitter-sweet. To a Western audience, the Japanese ideals of love may seem far fetched, or part of the cult ‘kitsch’ for us to marvel at. In a recent Guardian interview, Kitano said that this is his most violent film so far, although he didn’t set out with this intention. He didn’t mean physical violence, but rather the pain that we do to ourselves when we take the wrong path in life. All the characters in the movie take decisions that changed their lives forever that was not forseeable, but afterwards you can’t go back. Be careful what you wish for.