Three years after its lukewarm Cannes premiere director Kore-eda Hirokazu returns to the eternal themes of life and love, loss and loneliness that haunted his acclaimed 1998 film After Life with an adaption of the popular manga Kuuki Ningyo by Yoshiie Gōda, roughly translated for western audiences as Air Doll. On the surface this potential companion piece re-tread of 2007’s Lars & The Real Girl where Ryan Gosling became umbilically tied to his doll companion to the gentle consternation of the local small town American community, Air Doll treads a slightly different path by focusing on the magical animation of the polyethylene protagonist rather than the motivations of her alienated master in this usual, uneven but intriguing tale, at the very least its a film that lingers in the memory for its bizarre premise and hook upon which to lash its plastic perambulations.
Hideo (Itsuji Itao) is a lonely waiter in the sprawling metropolis of Tokyo, living alone his only companion is his inflatable sex doll whom he names Nozomi (A doe eyed Bae Doona, best known for The Host and recently unleashed Cloud Atlas), a inanimate imitation whom he panders with a genuine, heartfelt affection. With little fanfare one morning Nozomi animates and becomes self aware, curious at her surroundings she cautiously exits the flat and embarks on a journey of discovery, even swiftly gaining employment at the local video shop where she soon falls for the juvenile charms of her fellow colleague Junichci. Like an inverted Cinderella she must return home before Hideo does to resume her dormant duties, her mystified voice over supplying us with the wonder and stilted joie de vivre that Nozomi is enjoying at the hands of her miraculous transformation, but as her journey lengthens Nozomi begins to yearn for a deeper connection with her recently acquired friends and colleagues.
Air Doll is almost an adult inversion of the Toy Story myth, that these fetishised and affection draining figurines may just become spirited and curious once their masters attention is elsewhere, its fairy tale qualities squeaking against the cold realities of modern, urban living in an alienating and impersonal major metropolis. Mournfully realising she is a surrogate for sexual intimacy – and the ickiness of that unavoidably prurient theme is swiftly dismissed in an opening scene which Hirokazu wisely situates early in the tale so he can get on with his primary concerns of urban disaffection – Nozomi queries her colleagues on aging and mortality, her childlike curiosity finding little succor in their confusing and conflicting responses. Realism is clearly not on the menu here as the film strives for a metaphoric mediation amongst its quiet cityscape’s and muted interactions, a gentle and unassuming approach which stretches credulity to near breaking point as the plot mechanics contrive in a twisted tangle, hovering just on the cusp of empathic resonance and affectionate empathy – the film’s most encapsulating line occurring in a crucial transition scene where Nozomi whispers that ‘having a heart is heartbreaking’.
As certain plot strands are inflated then abandoned the film struggles with its purpose in interrogating the role of intimate relations in the 21st century, and notions of the objectification of women in Japanese society (or indeed Western society) become diluted and dulled, Air Doll opens with no subsequent explanation as to how Hideo arrived at his unusual situation through either childhood trauma or a string of unsuccessful romances, one speculates that a more equitable division of attention between the fantasy and its interlocutor might have produced a more balanced and effective fable. Itao plays Hideo as lonely rather than creepy, there is no poking fun or sneering at his potential inadequacies as he fosters more a sense of pity than disgust, mostly due to committed performances from him and Doona as the mentally maturing Nozomi faces up to some unfortunate realities of corporal, contemporary life. It’s a shame that this curious premise wasn’t sustained through to the final act as Hirokazu gets distracted with some blind spots and cul-de-sacs which don’t flesh out his central themes, but the film is certainly worth a look as a sideways appreciation of the modern condition that is more a modern remake of 1987’s Mannequin than a Pinocchio for perverts, in this unconventional mediation on the mysteries of love.
- Number of discs: 1
- Classification: 15
- Studio: Matchbox Films
- DVD Release Date: 26th November 2012
- Run Time: 116 minutes