Air Doll (Cert 18)
1 Disc (Distributor: Matchbox) Running Time: 116 minutes approx
A lonely café worker Hideo (Itsuji Itao) has a lifelike sex doll he has named Nozomi, which he dresses and treats like a real woman. One morning after Hideo leaves for work Nozomi (Bae Doona) magically comes to life, dresses herself in a maid costume and goes exploring the outside world. She ends up in a video rental store where she takes a job and through her burgeoning relationship with co-worker Junichi (Arata) Nozomi develops a heart and soul en route to becoming human.
Known mostly for his poignant and sometimes quirky dramas such as the powerfully tragic Nobody Knows or the touching After Life, celebrated Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda pushes further into the realms of fantasy with this adaptation of the adult manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Yoshie Gouda. The subject matter is sure to raise a few eyebrows for many, who may be expecting a tawdry soft porn twist on the classic Pinocchio fable (which may also be the main appeal for others) but Koreeda confounds us all by presenting a sensitive and tender meditation on loneliness, humanity and the transience of relationships built on superficial foundations.
Why Nozomi comes to life is never explained but, as with the best fairy tales sometimes no explanation is necessary. Even she seems to be amazed but this miracle at first but with the same blank canvas innocence of new born child discovering the world, she accepts it without question. During her first sojourn into the outside world she mimics everything she sees and hears, from a young child’s interactions with her father to an eccentric woman who wanders the street thanking the police officers and other servicemen for their work.
From interacting with Junichi and her boss (Ryô Iwamatsu) and observing the people and surroundings, Nozomi starts to adapt to human life, changing her clothing, mannerisms and general outlook. However, to Hideo, she is still just a sex doll, a role she reverts back to in his presence, hiding her sentient existence from him.
Within the small town Nozomi inhabits are others who are equally lonely and as empty as Nozomi physically is. She may have discovered her heart but the sadness around her leads to questions of whether it is worth having one. Through her voice over monologues Nozomi constantly reminds us she is just an “air doll” whose raison d’etre is to be a receptacle for Hideo’s sexual pleasure, and her apparent humanising does little to alter this until an accident at work sees her cut herself – but instead of bleeding she deflates.
Junichi’s quick thinking saves her, taping up the small rent then inflating her with his mouth, giving Nozomi her first experience of sexual arousal and pleasure. This brings the pair closer together and Nozomi and Hideo further apart, forcing Nozomi into hiding during the night, which backfires as Hideo buys a replacement doll. Suddenly, this new world of bliss isn’t so bright and cheerful after all as Nozomi discovers the concept of expendability.
Rather than spoon feed the audience Koreeda lets the story play out, allowing the images and action do the talking. Using a core group of characters who appear as part of Nozomi’s daily life, Koreeada creates a familiar set-up for her exponential adapting to this new life, against which her progress and awareness is measured.
Some of the interactions are quite amusing as Nozomi treats every new development with a childlike innocence while others simply lead to more questions, supplying harsh life lessons for our bewildered blow-up babe. For the viewer there are moments of surreal symbolism and some subtle touches to Nozomi’s actions but nothing that feels too exclusive or difficult to follow.
To do the lead role some justice, Koreeda has pulled a masterstroke in casting Korean actress Bae Doona, known to many fans for her role in Korean monster hit The Host (or for more ardent Asian film fans, the cult hit Linda Linda Linda), to whom this film belongs. Casting a Japanese actress would have made the transition from doll to living being an awkward one due to the non-Japanese facial designs of the doll.
Bae Doona’s Korean looks are a perfect replica of the doll’s face, her wide eyed expression and smooth skin completing the effect flawlessly. Bae is utterly compelling from start to finish, not just bringing the requisite emotion and wonderment to the characterisation but the nuances and little touches to her physical performance upon the initial awakening, from her stuttering walk and tentative first words.
Where the film stumbles is the near two hour running time, losing steam during the third act, burdening the viewer with just a little too much melancholy and downbeat drama as Nozomi’s journey heads into some much darker territories, almost jarring in juxtaposition to the gentle, whimsical charm of the first half of the film. Thankfully Bae remains a captivating watch even during this dragging period but a good twenty-five minutes of this could have been left on the cutting room floor, to create a more succinct and better flowing yarn.
Tonal shifts and length issues aside, Koreeda has shown it is possible to create a thoughtful and perceptive film out of a potentially salacious premise with Air Doll. Its leisurely pace might drag for some but the emotional exploration of its themes is potent and makes for a lyrical if confrontational drama. Approach with an open mind and you’ll find this to be a rewarding investment of your time.
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black