Few films are true tragedy, the last one I saw was Requiem for a Dream. That film studied addiction, Dolls walks the cliff between unbounded timeless love and obsession, between loyalty and survival. Loss serves to emphasise what existed, the futility shows the life that went before.
She won't stay, he won't leave her again; so they're bound together, endlessly traveling in search of the past.
He leaves with a promise, she carries out the ritual of their love on her own for half a lifetime. He returns, and not knowing who he now is, she abandons his memory.
...and simple obsession, an idol fills his life, until she is scarred and the last sight he wants is an image of her previously face.
Obsession, ritual, love, devotion to the point of insanity and self destruction. Involving yourself means more hurt.
The viewer is left desperate for resolution. First one story then another is abruptly ended, threads left dangling. I've read reviews where Kitano has been criticised for this; but I think it's intentional. The lack of resolution enhances the loss, there isn't a comfortable resolution, a familiar arc. Life just suddenly stops. Actually it's done at the most disturbing point, just as the resolution has started, and “should” be following a comfortably familiar path.
Comment on the film can't fail to mention the sensuous scenery. The tragedies are played out against beautiful natural landscapes; cherry blossom, wide beaches, verdant forests in autumn and snow covered mountains. As the bound couple walk ever on; we're treated to a visual feast of Japanese scenery.
There's so much more that could be said about this film. I wish I knew more of the history of Bunraku theatre, the emotive puppets that fill the introduction and are echoed at the end. I understand slightly that this is telling a classic tale, where tragedy comes from conflicting loyalty; but I don't share enough of the culture to really grasp the concepts.