Shot before Kitano's most recently released feature (his lively Zatoichi remake), Dolls is an extremely slow, quiet drama that weaves together three tragic tales of love and loss. The central story is about a young man who abandons his girlfriend in order to marry his boss's daughter. Upon hearing that his girlfriend has attempted suicide, he leaves his bride at the altar in order to care for the woman he wronged - who is now nearly catatonic. They embark on a mysterious journey across the Japanese landscape, which Dolls returns to again and again - to increasing tedium, I'm afraid.
Far more interesting, to this reviewer anyway, are the other two stories. The first involves an elderly Yakuza kingpin who remembers the girl he left behind forty years earlier, and returns to the park where she once told him she would return every Saturday to wait for him - only to discover her there, now as old as he, still waiting for him with his lunch. The final and by far most absorbing story is about a teenage pop star who, after a car accident disfigures her perfect face, goes into seclusion - and her biggest fan, a lonely and slightly creepy man in his thirties who tracks her down. Though it doesn't fit thematically with the other two episodes, it remains for me the most haunting - which may be due to my own fascination with the relationship between celebrities and their adorers. Nevertheless, I was impressed by Kitano's take on the obsessed fan. Instead of letting the character become psychotic and dangerous, as most filmmakers would, his story focuses on the crushing loneliness of the man's life, and how much this pop star meant to him. It is the saddest of three very sad fables, and is the one most worth seeing.
As for the film as a whole, it lacks the humor of Kitano's other work (possibly because of the absence of the deadpan Kitano in front of the camera) and the repeated imagery of the couple wandering through the countryside, though beautiful, is a little too artsy - and it certainly bogs down at times. Nevertheless, if you like a good depressing movie, Dolls is for you.