Plot: inflatable doll is given sentience and is in awe of the world around her.
Air Doll (空気人形) is a Japanese fairytale with a pronounced South Korean magic realist bend. As an elegant mix of drama, romance, and comedy that blends the joie de vivre of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001) it tells a timeless coming of age and has that intangible intense oneiric quality of either the best French or Spanish fantastiques or Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (1970). Complete with allusions to Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s tale Pinnochio and L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz it was hailed by critics in the specialized press and critics in the blogosphere as a true fairytale for grown-ups. Air Doll is a musing on what it means to be human and a sobering reflection of some of the mounting problems that Japanese society was (and still is) facing. it’s what the Japanese call fuwa fuwa (light and airy) but the problems it identifies couldn’t be more real. In other words, Air Doll is both timely and a modern classic. If Love Object (2003) had been a romantic drama it probably would have looked something like this. It was screened at the Un Certain Regard section of the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, was selected for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and won the Association Québécoise des Critiques de Cinéma (AQCC) award at the 2010 (14th) Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. This is something that couldn’t have come from any other place than Japan. If anything it cements Hirokazu Kore’eda’s reputation as the prime purveyor of humanist cinema.
The basis for Air Doll was the 20-page Gōda Tetsugaku-dō: Kūki Ningyō (or Gōda’s Philosophical Discourse: The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl) by Yoshiie Gōda. As the seinen manga upon which it was based Air Doll examines the unescapable loneliness of and what it means to be human in an impersonal, consumerist and performance-oriented late-capitalist society or how everyday life is for the median metropolitan Tokyoite. What it is to be fallible in a society that places impossible expectations – social, personal, economic, and otherwise – on its citizenry, does not tolerate failure, and puts honor in all of its various forms above the wellbeing of the individual. It also adresses the then-growing problem of the hikikomori (ひきこもり), something which has only exacerbated in the decade-plus since. The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl used Pinnochio as an allusion to examine the rigidity of gender roles, dysfunctional masculinity, and the management of emotions in a society that fails to engage with them. Instead of a wooden puppet coming to life Air Doll is the story of an inflatable sex doll gaining sentience. Like the Tin Woodman in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz the Air Doll too is looking for nothing but some tenderness and compassion. And just like Bruce Springsteen they are looking for “a little of that human touch.” Like so many ur-characters one question drives the Air Doll: “what does it mean to be human?” It explores that universal need for companionship and belonging, and the clawing, aching desperation that those suffering from anxiety and depression often experience. Air Doll takes a fantastical, near-magical approach to examine some very real problems.
One day inflatable Lovely Girl Candy sex doll Nozumi (Bae Doo-Na) is given kokoro (heart/soul) by some providence, divine or otherwise, and blinks an eye. Her middle-aged owner Hideo (Itsuji Itao) works an emotionally – and financially unrewarding job as a waiter in a restaurant. Disenfranchised and suffering from anxiety and depression Hideo seeks consolation and warmth in Nozumi’s arms and bosom every night. As she gains sentience she observes the raindrops on her window. Wide-eyed and innocent as a newborn the only thing she’s able to utter is, "Utsu-ku-shii" (or "beautiful") mesmerized by the pearls of light. After trying a variety of clothes (mermaid, nurse, schoolgirl) she eventually settles on a French chambermaid uniform. Woodingly she hobbles around the room before scrounging up enough courage to venture outside. As she wobbles down the busy streets of Tokyo Nozumi picks up patterns of speech and enough of a facsimile of humanity to hide her artificial origins. Dutifully Nozumi returns to the apartment every night to cradle Hideo in her arms. Increasingly aware that she has become a prisoner of her own desire she wants nothing but to be free.
On one of her daily excursions into the city Nozumi is able to parlay her newfound humanity into a job at the Cinema Circus video rental store. There she enlivens the uneventful life of despondent clerk Junichi (Arata Iura, as Arata) and soon the two become inseperatable. Hanging decorations one day Nozumi punctures herself, falls down and starts to deflate. Junichi (who is not in the slightest moved by the fact that his co-worker is an inflatable doll) nonchalantly repairs her injuries and sees to it that she’s reinflated and fully functioning again. All of this, of course, greatly arouses Nozumi. During one of their dates Nozumi meets little Moe (Miu Naraki) (Moe, of course, being an opaque otaku term meaning, amongst other things, "cute", "huggable", or "endearing") who’s celebrating her birthday in a restaurant with her father (Tomomi Maruyama). One day a greatly distracted Hideo visits the store but fails to recognize his Air Doll. Store owner Samezu (Ryô Iwamatsu) accuses Nozumi of having an affair behind poor Junichi’s back. Back at the apartment Nozumi confronts Hideo with her blossoming humanity but he coldly rejects her. Not only has Hideo rejected her, she also finds out that she was callously replaced with a younger model.
All this heartbreak is enough to send Nozumi on a quest to find her maker (Joe Odagiri). On her trails to find her maker Nozumi interacts with people from all walks of life. Sitting on a bench in a park she encounters wise old man Keiichi (Masaya Takahashi) who dispenses bumpersticker wisdoms and milquetoast platitudes free of charge, delighted to have an attractive young woman interested in his life’s story. Then there’s middle-aged receptionist Yoshiko (Kimiko Yo) who wishes nothing more than to be young and desirable again. At one point Nozumi even hears the Yoshino Hiroshi poem “Life Is”. In a bit of near-magical serendipity Nozumi (in)directly touches the lovelorn life of depressed young hermit Miki (Mari Hoshino) who’s estranged from her mother and whose life is as much of a mess as her studio apartment. Finally, she runs into Shinji (Ryosuke Takei), a strange and sexually frustrated young man who’s terminally afraid of women. All of them are longing for something, anything, to fill that gaping black hole and soul-eating void they harness inside. It’s here that our Air Doll learns that the human experience entails far more than just “having a heart.”
The Air Doll in question is South Korean actress Bae Doo-Na (배두나) who in the past several years has acted as something of a muse for Lana and Lily Wachowski. In that capacity she could be seen in Cloud Atlas (2012) and Jupiter Ascending (2014). Doo-na rose to prominence thanks to her role as Sadako Yamamura in Koji Suzuki’s Ring Virus (1999) and her appearance in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). Before Air Doll Doo-na was in the fuwa fuwa musical comedy Linda Linda Linda (2005) with Aki Maeda (前田亜季), or little Noriko from Battle Royale (2000). It’s a perfect little bit of casting as it gleefully plays up Doo-Na’s porcelain doll-like features and milky white complexion to maximum effect.
How we would have loved to see Ko Sung-Hee (고성희), Chae Soo-Bin (채수빈), and Shin Min-A (신민아) here, or alternatively Japanese starlets as Nicole Ishida (石田ニコル), Megumi Sato (佐藤めぐみ), Anna Nagata (永田 杏奈), Chiaki Kuriyama (栗山千明), Eriko Sato (佐藤江梨子), Yuriko Yoshitaka (吉高由里子), Mirei Kiritani (桐谷美玲), or even Eihi Shiina (しいなえいひ) in such part. The remainder of the cast is primarily known for their work in their native Japan, but a few will stand out to the average cinephile. Tomomi Maruyama (丸山智己) was in Audition (1999), Joe Odagiri (オダギリジョー) could be seen in Azumi (2003), and Itsuji Itao (板尾創路) was in Tokyo Gore Police (2008).
Central to Air Doll is the divide between hon'ne (本音) and tatemae (建前) as well as the growing problem of hikikomori. Of paramount importance in Japanese culture is the delicate balancing act between honne and tatemae. Hon'ne (“true sound”) is a person’s true feelings and desires. Tatemae ("built in front", "façade") are the imposed societal expectations coming with one’s position and background. Honne and tatemae might frequently stand in direct opposition to each other and frequently are the direct cause of inner turmoil. The pressure of balancing the complexities between one’s own needs and what society expects of said person has led to a generation of hikikomori ("acute social withdrawal") who share a feeling of alienation and mistrust. They are a demographic of reclusive adolescents that have withdrawn from social life due to their inability to deal with honne–tatemae. The problem is not unique to Japan, but the earliest reported cases and clinical studies surrounding the phenomenon happened there.
Mainland China especially in the decade-plus since has taken to imitating Air Doll and Jae-young Kwak’s My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) with an almost religious zeal. If you were to be cynical, it seems that the entire "robot girlfriend" subgenre (and its adjacent permutations) seems to built to learn 'the lost generation' the required social etiquette and how to interact with non-digital members of the opposite sex in a contemporary setting. Air Doll has a few stylistic overlaps with My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008) although the two couldn’t be any different otherwise. While that one told a heartwarming South Korean romance within a Japanese setting (helmed by a South Korean director/screenwriter no less) Air Doll has the benefit of a South Korean lead actress but is oh so very, very Japanese otherwise.
Air Doll is beautifully photographed and wonderfully minimalistic companion piece to My Girlfriend Is A Cyborg (2008). Never does the comedy or the occasional gander at Bae Doo-na’s exposed form diminish from the more serious subjects that it touches upon. It might be a tad too much style over substance for those familiar with the Hirokazu Kore’eda oeuvre, but it largely deals with his typical themes. While the later imitations took the Pinnochio and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz influences farther and made the allusions more obvious Air Doll got there first. Its quirkier moments are typically Japanese yet never are they strong enough to actively make this inaccessible to Western eyes and sensibilities. The kind of magic realism that Air Doll indulges in is universal, after all. It probably won’t appeal to fans of the more grounded and serious romances from, say, Kar-Wai Wong but there’s enough relevant subtext and social commentary in Air Doll to not be written off as just another weird Japanese movie. It might not be a Japanese Amélie (2001), but it certainly comes close.