The Films (4/5 (Kikujiro), 3.5/5 (Dolls)
U.K. label Third Window Films is quite possibly the premiere label in the English speaking world today for superb releases of Asian cinema, both classic and modern. In the past few years they have begun issuing the works of directors like Sion Sono, Takashi Miike, and Shinya Tsukamoto in wonderfully restored Blu-ray editions. At the beginning of 2015, they begin to turn their attention to one of Japan's finest talents of the last 30 years, who has struggled getting quality home video releases in the west, Takeshi Kitano. Their first release was a long overdue quality release of Kitano's masterpiece Hana-Bi (Fireworks). They have since followed it up with Kikujiro and Dolls with the director's Scene by the Sea coming soon.
Kikujiro is debatably Kitano's most popular/successful film. It stars the director as the titular Kikujiro, a wreckless man obsessed with gambling who is forced to take a young boy Masao on a trip to find his estranged Mother. At first Kikujiro does not take the trip seriously, and spends their time gambling, but after a dangerous encounter threatens Masao, Kikujiro promises to complete their journey. Things don't go exactly as planned for the pair, but together they have an interesting and beautiful adventure through rural Japan.
Dolls, which is inspired by the tradition of Japanese bunraku theater (puppets theater) is an anthology film of 3 stories tied together with themes of tragedy, love, and obsession. In the first story a young man is made to break off his engagement to his beloved by his parents. When she finds out the news suicide is attempted, she is unsuccessful and left brain damaged. Rather, then leave her in a hospital to rot, he breaks her out and they wander the Japanese countryside tied together by a length of rope so she cannot wander (because of her mental condition). The second story involves a gangster who spends each Saturday with a woman in a park having lunch. One day he decides to end the relationship, but she chooses not to accept the end, and promises to keep coming to the park with lunch every Saturday. The third and final story involves an obsessed fan of a pop star blaming himself in a tragic manner for an accident she was in.
I had seen both of these before, but watching them as a double feature was quite the experience. Kikujiro is a hugely positive and uplifting film from director Kitano. The film shows some of the best sides of humanity, and something that is rarely seen in cinema at all. It is a film that shows 2 people working together to create a truly positive world for one another. The film is anchored by another excellent performance by Kitano, but also Yusuke Sekiguchi as Masao. The film is populated by wonderful, eccentric, and interesting characters. It also features another dynamite score by Studio Ghibli mainstay Joe Hisaishi. Kikujiro admittedly starts out quite slow, but after the pair finally get on their journey the film is endlessly compelling and interesting. The films actual narrative winds up long before the film ends, but all the time we spend with these characters is absolutely worth it.
Dolls is a tonally different experience from Kikujiro. Now, that is pretty obvious it is a different film made over half a decade apart with a totally different intent. However, Kitano had developed a reputation early in his career as a director of quirky yakuza epics, and the 2 films released by Third Window concurrently could be viewed as the directors attempts to break out of that mold. Kikujiro is a very positive and beautiful film that shows the world in a very specific way.
Dolls on the other hand shows a darker more tragic and obsessive side to the world through the eyes of its various protagonists. Each story shows the give and take nature of love, and what people are willing to do with that emotion. The characters in the film aren't exactly deep characters, but what they do well is act as symbols acting out dramatic emotional responses to these situations. It's not so much that we understand these characters as people themselves, but because of the way the film is staged we begin to understand the deeper nature of their individual tragedies. Which is another interesting thing about the film. Kitano has never been afraid to slow down where needed, but in keeping with bunraku tradition, these shorts are paced quite slowly allowing a deeper emotional exploration and observation of the characters and their situations.
Audio/Video (3.5/5 (Kikujiro), 4.5/5 (Dolls)
Third Windows Films using the HD remasters from Office Kitano have issued Kikujiro and Dolls in excellent and very natural Blu-ray editions preserving their 1:85:1 OAR in a 1080p AVC encode. Kikujiro like Hana-Bi previously is quite a solid transfer with excellent detail over prior editions (granted DVD), nicely reproduced colors, and a healthy grain structure at play. There is some damage from the source material, and some minor softness from shot to shot. Dolls is definitely the best of the Kitano films to receive an HD transfer thus far. The Blu-ray features gorgeous color reproduction, excellent fine detail, and a healthy level of grain present. No real visual damage is present like the earlier transfers is present here, and what we have is truly excellent.
The audio for both films is handled by a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track in Japanese with optional subtitles. The track is quite solid with score and dialogue coming through nicely. I did not detect any issues with either track.
Extras (4/5 (Kikujiro), 4/5 (Dolls))
Kikujiro has one extra, but it is a brilliant, Jam Session a 90 minute documentary detailing the making of the film. Dolls has 5 separate on screen interviews with the cast and crew and a behind the scenes look at the films Venice Film Festival premiere.
Third Window Films have done such an immense job bringing the work of Takeshi Kitano to Blu-ray. Both films Kikujiro and Dolls look and sound fantastic on these releases, and have excellent extras between both. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.