Given the title of ''Dolls" and the fact that it opens with a stage performance of mildly creepy Bunraku puppets; given that Japanese writer-director Takeshi Kitano has previously wrapped his poetic tough-guy mitts around gangster films (''Sonatine"), buddy movies (''Kids Return"), intergenerational road flicks (''Kikujiro"), and samurai homages (''The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi"), you may be forgiven for thinking that a horror movie might be in the offing and that the puppets will grab kendo sticks and start whaling the tar out of people. Sort of like ''Seed of Nun-Chucky."
Sorry, B-movie gorehounds. ''Dolls" is an art film, and a languid, inexplicably haunting one at that. The most free-form film yet from this unique director (he's a Japanese stand-up comic and a pop star, too), it requires patience and a taste for internal visual rhyme over narrative thrust. Kitano takes three tales of doomed love and interleaves them until they play like a piercingly beautiful flip book on the subject of regret. The rewards are as hard to grasp as mist but they're there nonetheless.
After that stagebound opening ends with the puppets looking accusingly out at us, we meet Matsumoto (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a young businessman whose ambitious parents have talked him out of his engagement to his true love Sawako (Miho Kanno) so he can marry the boss's daughter. Sawako does not respond well, to say the least. Mastumoto bails from his wedding to be with her and the two drop out of the world, wandering the roads of Japan through the seasons and bound by a long red cord that drags cherry blossoms, flowers, dead leaves, and snow in its wake.
In another part of Tokyo is Hiro (Tatsuya Mihashi), an aging lion of a yakuza who is surrounded by gangland double-crossing but has himself outgrown the need for violence. Plagued by memories of Ryoko (Chieko Matsubura), a girlfriend with whom he regularly lunched in the park during his youth decades before, Hiro returns to see if she has kept her promise to return to their bench every Saturday.
A third strand of story follows Haruna (Kyoko Fukada), a teenage singing star of the kind that inspires religious devotion from adolescent girls and a few lonely men. Nukui (Tsutomu Takeshige) is one of the latter, a socially awkward traffic cop who revolves around the singer like a distant planet around the sun. But idols like Haruna are common and disposable in Japan, and there comes a time when Nukui has to put his love to the test. What follows is discreetly grisly, though not in the manner you might expect.
Kitano uses a slow pace and a glorious visual aestheticism to keep us at arm's length in ''Dolls." The cinematography by Katsumi Yanagishima uses bold colors in the manner of ''Hero," but here the hues mirror the wheel of the seasons and hint at the impossibility of stepping off it. The costumes by celebrated designer Yohji Yamamoto progress from modern-day dress to mournful period robes; Joe Hisaishi's score is elegant and unforgiving. It's all as passionate, refined, and insistently sad as Bunraku puppetry itself.
Who, then, pulls the strings? Before Kitano hangs his characters up like dusty marionettes, he offers the possibility that it's the puppets who control their masters. Or perhaps we are each other's puppeteers, and the cords that tether us, made of blood and fumbled intentions, are forever tangled. ''Dolls" says we're all connected, but to what is the greater mystery.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.