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Originally published Friday, January 21, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Haunted by the ghost of lost happiness in "Dolls"

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is best-known for writing and directing such splashy action movies as the ultraviolent "Brother" (2001) and last year's...

Special to The Seattle Times

Takeshi "Beat" Kitano is best-known for writing and directing such splashy action movies as the ultraviolent "Brother" (2001) and last year's anything-goes, over-the-top epic "The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi."

But he reveals a tender side in the male-bonding tearjerker "Kikujiro" (1999) and the sometimes dazzlingly poetic "Dolls," which was produced in 2002, long after he finished "Brother" but before he started on "Zatoichi." "Dolls" is making its Seattle debut today at the Northwest Film Forum, which is showing a nearly flawless 35mm print.

Kitano usually stars in his movies, focusing others' emotions within his eloquently deadpan gaze. But he stays behind the cameras in "Dolls," encouraging his actors to match his minimalist approach. Sometimes it works; sometimes the inanimate scenery seems more vital. In structure, tone and pacing, "Dolls" is surely his most experimental film to date.

Set in contemporary Tokyo, the script sets up three separate story lines, although only one of them has much impact.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 2.5 stars

"Dolls," with Miho Kanno, Hidetoshi Nishijima. Written and directed by Takeshi Kitano. 113 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (includes some violence). In Japanese, with English subtitles. Northwest Film Forum.

The main narrative thread follows a once-happy young couple, Matsumoto and Sawako, who are bound to each other by a long red cord that serves a function similar to the deceased Jacob Marley's ghostly chains in "A Christmas Carol." The boy, pressured by his parents to abandon his girlfriend and seek success in business, marries the boss's daughter. His girlfriend turns suicidal, and they're condemned to wander through snowbound landscapes, acres of blood-red autumn leaves and a forest of cherry blossoms. Katsumi Yanagishima's cinematography is ravishing.

The images of Matsumoto and Sawako's journey dominate the movie; in the opening and closing scenes, delicate Bunraku puppets act out their folly for a packed theater.

Less arresting are the stories of Hiro, a lonely yakuza boss who longs for the girlfriend he abandoned three decades ago, and Haruna, a pop star who lives in seclusion following an accident that scarred her face.

As Hiro, Tatsuya Mihashi gives the most accomplished, poignant performance in the film; Kitano helps out by dealing tactfully with his romantic fantasies as well as his predictable fate. The character just needs more screen time to register. Kyoko Fukada's Haruna is much less compelling. Hidetoshi Nishijima and Miho Kanno are so glumly blocklike as Matsumoto and Sawako, respectively, that they invite unintended giggles.

Devoted fans of Kitano will want to see "Dolls." Others may be put off by the dirgelike pace (Kitano takes full credit for the editing) and a ghastly, mood-destroying pop-music number performed by Fukada.

John Hartl:

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