Air Doll has a touch of Amelie about it; the wonderous intimacy we develop with our magical realist protagonist. From other angles, it seems almost like Pinocchio: a poor creation with only an infant’s understanding adventuring out into the world. Though always, and intrinsically, Air Doll is an adult fairy tale that calls into question the purpose of life and belonging in a way just as pure as it is tragic. It is a heart-warming rite of passage before it becomes a gruesome disaster. Only an auteur as legendary as Hirokazu Kore-eda could make a film about a sex doll coming to life as sweet, sincere and hopeful as this film.
Nozomi (Doona Bae) is an air doll, confined to her owner’s (Itao Itsuji) cramped and grubby apartment, there to be loved and to be used. One day, Nozomi wakes up with a soul. Upon venturing out into the streets of Tokyo, she is perplexed and fascinated by the real people she sees and begins to assimilate herself into their world. Gradually, Nozomi grows accustomed to the idea of living until one day her plastic is punctured and she deflates in front of her newfound friend Junichi (Iura Arata) in the video shop they work at. Her true identity revealed, Nozomi finds herself facing the realities of bearing a soul in a modern metropolis of lonely strangers.
The film seems a parallel to the Greek myth of Galatea, a tale where a sculptor adores his creation so much that Aphrodite brings her to life for him. Kore-eda’s retelling is a wholly more humanising piece on behalf of the newly animated woman than the original, though it itself is an adaptation. Gouda Yoshiie’s 20-age manga ‘The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl’ broke the director’s policy to only direct original ideas in the winter of 2001. He began developing an adaptation that would not grace screens for another eight-year – and is only just now landing on those in the US.
Bae Doona leads the film as the animated doll, a role that she inhabits convincingly both verbally and in her clumsy fawn-like physicality. So much so that her character, who risks becoming alienated from the audience purely in her overtly sexualised position, is made empathetic without infantilising her ability to comprehend complex emotions and experiences. Nozomi’s journey is at least 20 years’ worth of rites of passage propelled through two neat hours on screen and simplified only slightly. It’s also worth mentioning that Doona is a Korean actor who, at the time of filming, knew only limited Japanese.
But this is a Kore-eda film. Anyone who is familiar with this director’s work knows that Kore-eda only tells stories in multitudes. His signature cast ensemble of varying generations, aspirations and economic status is ever-present in Air Doll, as is his craft of exposing the symbiotic nature of humans and the way we create ripples in the lives of those around us. In managing to characterise people who appear on screen only a handful of times with such depth and complexity, he makes these minuscule interactions paramount to Nozomi’s story in the way that is purely felt by those watching: serendipity often reigns over our fates in real life too.
Air Doll is, simply, about the loneliness of the modern world, for both women and men. Repeated throughout the film is the word ‘substitute’; Nozomi refers to herself and other air dolls as a ‘substitute for managing sexual desire,’ an old man she befriends was a substitute teacher, and as she tries to explain her situation to strangers they reciprocate the idea of not quite fulfilling the purpose they wish to achieve; merely functioning as a substitute for the best option. Aesthetically, this theme is reinforced beautifully by the roving camerawork of a dilapidated urban Tokyo (still painfully beautiful to a Western eye) designed by Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee (also known for Wong Kar Wai’s iconic In the Mood for Love).
There is, of course, the glaring fact that the protagonist of the film is a sex doll – and the scenes where she is quite literally ‘used’ are just as uncomfortable as you imagine – which comes alongside an undeniable sense of the male gaze. Nozomi, even when dressing herself, wears very short dolly dresses, fawns over Junichi and is the childlike creation of her Frankenstein-esque creator in the final act. The film was made by a male director, based off of a comic by a male artist. There isn’t really a way around any of that, and it’s worth acknowledging (cue the enraged comments).
Air Doll really, truly humanises and empathises with an individual who parallels a sex worker, is infantilised by others, and yet contains just as much complexity as her male counterparts. That’s what magical realism offers as a form of storytelling; elevating reality ever so slightly to get beneath the surface of those things that we find so hard to talk about. Morality, desire, loneliness and how we have power over all of them.
Air Doll is out in the US now
by Daisy Leigh-Phippard
Daisy (she/her) studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s Labyrinth, The Handmaiden, Frida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on Twitter, Letterboxd and Instagram.