Hirokazu Kore-eda moves into surprising territory with 'Air Doll.'

Kore-eda Breathes Life into 'Air Doll'

Dennis Harvey June 25, 2010

It’s weird to consider, but there’s actually a significant subset of movies about people importantly involved, humanoid toys. These range from devil-doll horrors (the Karen Black TV movie classic Trilogy of Terror, the whole Chucky slasher franchise) to ventriloquist-dummy suspense (1945’s classic British omnibus Dead of Night, 1978 Anthony Hopkins vehicle Magic) to anatomically-correct med-school dummy psychodrama (the rather marvelous 1988 obscurity Pin.)

Then there are the movies about actual mail-order artificial companions. Primitive versions—the kind with a nozzle you blow into—featured minorly in earlier films like Paul Bartel’s insidious 1972 feature debut, Private Parts. A high-end version featured majorly in the enchantingly sweet indie Lars and the Real Girl two years ago, in which Ryan Gosling fell head-over-heels for the “houseguest” he’d ordered from catalog—and his midwestern small town gently tolerated that “relationship” until its sustaining illusion passed.

There have also been some notable foreign variations on that theme, ranging from Arne Mattson’s macabre 1962 Swedish The Doll (starring the great Per Oscarsson as a department store security guard who steals the mannequin he’s besotted with) to Luis Garcia Berlanga’s 1974 Life Size (Michel Piccoli forsakes wife for a pneumatic mute version).

Now there’s Air Doll, about a blowup doll that comes to life. Her name is Nozomi, and, like Pinocchio, it is her apparent ambition to become a real human being. This potentially twee, ordinarily escapist fantasy a la Splash or Mannequin is from Hirokazu Kore-eda, perhaps the most arresting and unpredictable Japanese director in recent years. Undeniably the sweetest film he’s made to date, it continues the pattern of constant surprise he’s sewn since 1995’s Maborosi (the first and last dramatic feature he didn’t also write).

His After Life (1998) was a fascinating vision of Heaven—or Purgatory, or something—as a bureaucratic extension of Japanese corporate life. The 2001 Distance imagined the human dimensions inside a real-life Tokyo radical sect before and after their signature act of public terrorism. 2004’s Nobody Knows was another striking docudrama, loosely drawn from the case of a woman who abandoned her four children (the eldest twelve) to fend for themselves when she found a new lover, leaving them with scant resources and a terror of being detected by the landlord.

Two years later, Hana was a lighthearted period samurai adventure. Still Walking (released in the U.S. last year) was an exquisite dysfunctional-family seriocomedy as minutely detailed as anything by Ozu.

Which brings us to Air Doll—a progression that makes no sense whatsoever, but bless Kore-eda for his inspired waywardness. One could only wish more major filmmakers were capable of forward steps so seemingly arbitrary, yet sure.

Air Doll is initially about a man with the perfect domestic companion—perfect for his needs, at least. Hideo (Itsuji Itao) is a middle-aged waiter with an unpleasant job and no apparent friends or family. But he has Nozomi (Korean actress Bae Doona of The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance), to whom he can chat freely and make love every night. The thing is, Nozomi is—well, you guessed it. She is a life-sized inflatable toy with a rubber vagina that can be removed for easy washing. For Hideo the obvious limitations only make her more agreeable than a complicated, problematic actual human girlfriend would be.

But one day, left alone, Nozomi begins to move all by herself. She’s discovered she has a heart, and ventures out to explore her run-down Tokyo neighborhood with wide-eyed wonder. She even gets a job at a video store, where she falls for shy fellow clerk Junichi (Kore-eda regular Arata) who eventually discovers her secret and doesn’t seem too bothered by it. However, each night she comes home to Hideo, resuming inert form because he can’t or won’t see her as more than an object.

Indeed, no one in Air Doll seems properly appreciated by those around them. The city Kore-eda and Nozomi observe is full of isolated, sad individuals. Loneliness and alienation seem to be this director’s great recurrent subjects. In Air Doll he’s found a whopper of a societal metaphor in Nozomi’s naive efforts to fit in as a human—or even figure out simply what being human means. She searches for some affirmation of her value as an individual. But the people around her aren’t much help, feeling little-valued themselves.

If that makes Air Doll sound like a downer, well, to an extent that is true—the story (adapted from a manga by Yoshiie Goda) eventually heads toward darker terrain than one might anticipate. The film has also been criticized for being slow and overlong; at just over two hours, it definitely takes its time with a rather slender tale.

Yet there’s a gentle yearning to Kore-eda’s treatment that has considerable appeal. In addition to its understated but carefully tuned visual aspects,  a big plus is the whimsical delicacy of an original score by band World’s End Girlfriend. But the biggest is Bae Doona’s otherworldly innocence as Nozomi (which means “hope”), a living doll who approaches humanity with the trusting nature, innocent delight, and easily bruised feelings of a toddler. While Air Doll may not be Kore-eda’s finest hour (I’d vote for Still Walking), it’s a conceptual gamble pulled off with a master’s grace and subtlety.