Perhaps due as much to the flashes of Haruna's bubble-gum pop act as anything else, this third story seems a slightly awkward fit with the serene melancholy that reigns in the others. However, its themes of devotion, sacrifice and overwhelming love as an extremist act, both unreasoning and unreasonable, are constants in all three stories, neatly interwoven in Kitano's script. While the drama's emotional observations could have been brought together more cohesively, its sorrowful mood resonates beyond the end credits, allowing key themes to continue to gel.
Aside from Joe Hisashi's syrupy score and some rather obvious symbolism, principal flaw is the protracted concluding stretch in which Sawako and Matsumoto drift through a winter landscape toward death, increasingly embodying the intercut Bunraku puppets that glide across the stage. Beautiful and plaintive as they are, these scenes push the director's approach of poetic austerity almost to exasperation and will try the patience of some audiences.
"Dolls" moves with a deliberate pace. I have seen bunraku performances in Japan, and found them long, slow and stylized; the same can be said of the film. Kitano is not content to simply tell his stories, but wants to leave us time to contemplate them, to experience the passage of time for these characters and the way their choices will define them for the rest of their lives. The three active lovers in the film -- Matsumoto, the woman, and the fan -- willingly sacrifice their freedom and happiness in acts of romantic abnegation. Such gestures seem odd in the modern world, but not in classical tragedy, not in bunraku, and not in the Japanese tradition of dramatic personal gestures.
The film has moments of great loveliness. Some of the landscapes, filled with autumn leaves of astonishing shades of red, are beautiful and lonely. The film is about three people who have unhappiness forced upon them, and three others who choose it. "Dolls" isn't a film for everybody, especially the impatient, but Kitano does succeed, I think, in drawing us into his tempo and his world, and slowing us down into the sadness of his characters.