DIRECTED BY: Hirokazu Koreeda
FEATURING: Doona Bae, Arata Iura, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri, Sumiko Fuji
PLOT: Nozomi, an inflatable sex doll, develops consciousness and comes to life, wandering through the streets while her owner is at work, encountering various lonely souls including a video store attendant, with whom she falls in love.
WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: The central conceit (and character) of the inflatable sex doll is the only weird element in this film. The people surrounding Nozomi and the contemporary Japanese setting are grounded in naturalism, positioning the film in the genre of magical realism rather than surrealism.
COMMENTS: The concept of an outsider or alien force experiencing human existence is a familiar trope in cinema. Ex Machina (2015), Her (2013), A.I. (2001), City of Angels (1998) and even Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992) all explore similar concepts. In the main, these films present a robot or artificial intelligence evolving human characteristics, whereas Air Doll posits a less likely protagonist: an inflatable vinyl sex doll.
Nozomi, a “sexual surrogate” as she lamentably reminds us through the film, lives with her owner, Hideo, in modern urban Tokyo. She passively listens to his self-important ramblings about work (which we later learn are lies), and then later serves as an equally passive recipient to his sexual advances. The following morning, after Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi inexplicably comes to life (Nozomi describes the process as “finding a heart”) in a sequence where an animated puppet becomes actress Doona Bae, enjoying the sensual thrill of dripping water running over her hand. Her first thoughts on her newfound consciousness are “beau-ti-ful!,” but this will change by the film’s end.
Nozomi is a curiosity to those she encounters, but their reactions are no match for her own wonder at everything she sees. Even the garbage men fascinate her. Nozomi’s wonder and simple satisfaction with life remains a stark contrast to the thwarted happiness of the human characters throughout the film
Nozomi’s position as outsider is reinforced both by her status as an animated doll and the casting of Korean actress Bae in a Japanese film. This is purposeful casting by director Koreeda to throw his observations of modern urban life into sharper relief. Like Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” the satire or analysis of a culture is strengthened the more alien the presence of the other observing it. Bae, the alien in question, seems incapable of delivering a poor performance; even if the film is weak (witness the failed splendor of Cloud Atlas) she is always in top form and her portrayal here is no exception. Nozomi is by turns curious, ebullient, playful, saddened, sensual and emphatic. Her small, staccato, childlike walk in her French Maid’s dress is also a lovely touch, emphasizing Nozomi’s innocence and vulnerability.
Despite the potential here for an incisive and engaging investigation of modern Japanese life—and by extension human existence—the overall tone remains light and humorous , although the film does take a much darker turn in its final act. Even the bleaker aspects of the human characters’ lives fail to inspire sympathy because they are so underdeveloped (many of them we only see once or twice in small cutaways). You could argue the conceit of a sex doll coming to life is farcical and thus the comic tone is appropriate, but elsewhere Koreeda teases us with more involved drama (for example, Nozomi’s boss blackmailing her for sex) without ever really committing to it.
That the film is a slight work that sadly never lingers in the memory is evidenced by the lack of interviews and production materials surrounding it online. Even the links on its Wikipedia page are dead and its archived page on the Cannes Film Festival comes up with an “error.” This is not to say that the film doesn’t have very beautiful and tender moments: for example the gentle touch the old man asks Nozomi to place on his forehead, or Nozomi opening up a tear on her arm in order to smell the breath of her lover; its simply that there is nothing significant about the human experience mined in any great depth. Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (To Live) (1952) is a much more palpable and urgent examination of what it means to be human and why life is so precious. (I mention it only because the initial pleasure in life Nozomi experiences is similar to the renewed urgency found by Ikiru’s protagonist).
As a rumination on urban loneliness and inertia, defeated dreams and the loss of innocence transitioning to adulthood, this film is arguably successful; however in addressing the larger questions of what it means to human it falls flat, suffering from a lack of focus and peripheral characters in need of further development.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“What’s most interesting about the story is not its apparent oddness, but the fact it maintains a sense of fairy tale magic even while it’s set in a cold and seemingly hollow world.”–Sara Maria Vizcarrondo, Boxoffice Magazine