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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.

Plot: Tokyo is threatened by the Panther Claw. Can Cutie Honey save the day?

The Far East has a long and storied history for being a haven for some of the strangest, wackiest cinematic outings of the past several decades. Whether they are the fantasy wuxia / martial arts romps from Hong Kong, the Philippines and its one-man industry Cirio H. Santiago, or the Thai jungle action flicks from Chalong Pakdeevijit. Japan has long delved into its classic literature and more recent manga and anime catalogue for features. While these adaptations were less commonplace in the sixties to eighties, they became the bread-and-butter for Japanese cinema from the nineties onward. Manga come in every possible form and variety and there’s no subject that the comics leave untouched. Whether they cater to a specific interest or aim themselves at a certain demographic the only unifying factor is that they are drawn entertainment. If proven successfull enough a manga might be turned into a television series or full length feature. One of these popular manga was Cutey Honey from 1972 that was translated to screen simply as Cutie Honey (キューティーハニー), a decidedly more sanitized iteration of the character.

Cutey Honey was dreamt up by Gô Nagai, a pioneer of ecchi and hentai manga in the late 1960s. Nagai was influenced by the work of Osamu Tezuka and after graduating from high school he worked as an assistant for Shôtarô Ishinomori. Nagai’s first brush with controversy happened in 1968 when his comic Harenchi Gakuen (Shameless High School) not only became a huge success and revolutioned the manga but instigated a round of book burning by the domestic conservative Parent/Teacher Associations. Gô Nagai quickly made a name for himself with his deranged, slightly perverse, humorous and sex-oriented parodies of popular sentai properties of the day. Among Nagai’s most enduring creations are not only Cutey Honey but also Legendary Panty Mask and Kekkō Kamen. At the very least Nagai was an equal opportunity offender as he came up with absurd characters like Testicle Boy. In 1972 Gô Nagai envisioned Cutey Honey as a parody to the super sentai shows Ultraman (1966 and 1972) from Tsuburaya Productions, Kamen Raidâ (1971) from Ishinomori Productions and Toei Company and Warrior of Love Rainbowman (1972) from Toho Company Ltd.. Cutey Honey was a manga series for the shōnen (teenage boys) that appeared in Weekly Shōnen Champion's 41st issue of 1973 where it ran until April 1974. When it was adapted into a TV series it was originally aimed at the shōjo (teenage girls) market, free of excessive violence and nudity, and more of a ploy to sell a line of changing Barbie dolls. However, the anime landed at the shōnen timeslot forcing Nagai and his producers to change it accordingly. The series was cancelled over its racy content but somehow ended up attracting a good portion of teenage girl fans. Compared to Nagai’s more outrageous creations Cutey Honey beams with indefatigable optimism and joie de vivre.

The first Cutey Honey anime series aired in 1973 and has since been recognized as an early form of and the foremost precursor to the mahō shōjo (魔法少女) subgenre. Since her conception in the early seventies Cutey Honey has been adapted for the big – and small screen several times in the form of animated series, a live action series and several big screen adaptations. Suffice to say, while Legendary Panty Mask and Kekkô Kamen were brought to big screen too, Cutey Honey is by far Nagai’s most enduring and recognizable creation. There would be no Sailor Moon (1991-1997) without Cutey Honey. Cutey Honey is fantasy fuel taken to ridiculous extremes (without the overt sleaze of, say, Kekkō Kamen) and she has been an inspiration to cosplayers and otaku since 1972. Her sheer insanity makes the Italian fumetti photo comics from the sixties look relatively sane in comparison.

Move over Argoman (1967). Step aside Infra-Man (1975). Make way Lady Battle Cop (1990). Here comes Cutie Honey, the hot bod sentai bot in figure-fitting neon pink spandex complete with strategically placed heart-sharped boobwindow for maximum cleavage. The Warrior Of Love who can defeat any enemy with the candy-colored super-powers emanating from her chest and ass – and when those prove not powerful enough she wields a mighty sword to boot! The combined fevered imaginations of Luigi Cozzi and Jing Wong couldn’t possibly conceive something this unabashedly fetishistic and objectifying. It makes Valerie Leon in whatever little she was wearing in Zeta One (1969) and Caroline Munro and her space bikini in StarCrash (1979) look positively measured in comparison. "Crazy” is too mild a term to describe how deliciously over-the-top Cutie Honey truly is.

Honey Kisaragi (Eriko Satô) is a life-like android driven by nano-technology made as a mirror image to her professor father’s long-lost daughter. To hide her nature as a simulacrum Honey has adopted a good-natured, ditzy, giggly teenage girl façade. Now that she has come of age Honey is not exactly what you call upwardly mobile but she somehow has managed to secure work as an office temp at Tachibana Trading Corporation. She’s habitually late, spends her days wondering what it is that everybody does at the office, and kills the hours bringing everybody tea. She contemplates the merits of taking a bubble bath, drinking sparkly wine, and lounging around her apartment in lingerie. One day her uncle Utsugi (Masaki Kyomoto) is kidnapped by Gold Claw (Hairi Katagiri) and Tokyo (and, by extent, the world) is threatened by the dangers of the Panther Claw, a host of interdimensional baddies led by the fiendish Sister Jill (Eisuke Sakai). Honey rushes to the streets (in nothing but her lingerie, because of course) chomping down as much onigiri (rice balls) and green tea as she possibly can. She must load her powers, you know?

Once fully charged Honey activates her Imaginary Induction System, or I-System, by pressing the pink heart-shaped button on her choker and saying “HONEY FLASH!” This transforms her into the neon-pink spandexed Warrior Of Love, a hyperkinetic kawaii superheroine wielding the deepest of cleavage and the sharpest of swords! As the Panther Claw descends upon Tokyo law enforcement desperately tries to contain the situation. When police officer Natsuko Aki (Mikako Ichikawa) arrives on the scene with her assistants Todoroki (Ryo Kase) and Goki (Ryo Iwamatsu) she realizes that she got more than she ever bargained for. The strange going-ons attract the attention of photojournalist Seiji Hayami (Jun Murakami). Finding herself chased by both Natsuko Aki and Seiji Hayami, Cutie Honey befriends the former in civilian form and vies for the attentions of the latter. As the villain’s drill-shaped lair emerges from underneath the Tokyo Tower, Cutie Honey engages Black Claw (Mitsuhiro Oikawa), Cobalt Claw (Sie Kohinata) and Scarlet Claw (Mayumi Shintani) in battle. Will Cutie Honey’s unwavering optimism, love, and cleavage be enough to repel the evils of Sister Jill?

Embodying Cutie Honey (quite literally, really) in this incarnation is Eriko Satō (佐藤 江梨子). Satō initially rose to fame as a gravure idol under the alias Satoeri and later became a very popular and much in-demand swimsuit model. She appeared semi-nude on and in the June 24, 2003 issue of Frau. That was closely followed by a photo shoot and 15-second television commercial for Takano Yuri Beauty Clinic with J-pop singer Gackt (then again in 2006) and consolidated her success by releasing a popular calendar in 2004. In those times before Haruka Ayase she was the ideal candidate to play Cutie Honey. For those of whom Satō is a bit much there’s model-turned-actress Mikako Ichikawa (市川 実日子). The other cast includes popular urban/r&b singer Kumi Koda and television actress Mihoko Abukawa (appearing both as Tachibana company office workers) as well as Jun Murakami.

Appearing in small cameos are series creator Gô Nagai (a taxi driver whose vehicle Cutie Honey crashes into, conveniently ass first) and director Hideaki Anno (as an office worker). Adapting Cutie Honey for the big screen was animator, director, and actor Hideaki Anno, best known for his anime series Nadia: the Secret Of Blue Water (1990), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996) and, more recently, the AYTIWS approved Shin Godzilla (2016) (which also starred Mikako Ichikawa). Who better to helm a tokusatsu sentai spoof than a master of the genre? Calling Anno the Hayao Miyazaki of his corner of anime wouldn’t be too far off. Hideaki’s post-project depressions are the things of legend, yet for some reason it’s difficult to fathom how anybody could be depressed after making Cutie Honey. Withdrawal, perhaps? One of the great feats of the Gô Nagai manga was that it catered to everybody’s tastes. For obvious reasons much of the situational nudity is, understandably, absent here.

And what’s not to love about a superheroine with powers concentrated in her chest and ass? The pastel pink-white-blue production design and monsters are crazier than StarCrash (1979) and Infra-Man (1975) combined and the wardrobe is some of the most deranged this side of Bitto Albertini’s Escape From Galaxy 3 (1981). Cutie Honey is a candy-colored phantasmagoria of various shades of insane, and unabashedly fetishistic in its reliance on cleavage – and pantyshots. Anno relishes putting Eriko Satô in the tiniest of lingerie and takes great pleasure in ogling her from just about every flattering angle and compromising position possible. The score is a schizophrenic mix between 1970s groovy Eurospy funk and J-pop and the special effects work is decidedly old-fashioned and campy. The Panther Claw minions look like the goons from the action-comedy Black Mask (1996). What’s not to like about a super heroine that takes time out of her busy day saving the world to spent a night on the town with her best friend only to end up badly singing karaoke in a drunken stupor? Cutie Honey makes Argoman (1967) and Infra-Man (1975) look like sophisticated works. It’s just as unbelievably shallow and silly as the manga and anime it was inspired by. That Cutie Honey just was a tad inspired by Forrest J. Ackerman’s equally zany Vampirella and its 1996 big screen adaptation (which wasn’t really all that big) should surprise no one.

Cutie Honey is uniquely Japanese in its brazen insanity and singular commitment to lifting the spirit. Only the Japanese are able to dial up the crazy farther than the Italians and Chinese in their heyday. Cutie Honey is crazier than the prime works of both Luigi Cozzi and Jing Wong, combined. It was followed by an anime series called New Cutie Honey (1994) and a few years later Toei Animation continued with Cutie Honey Flash (1997). In the new millennium there was Re: Cutie Honey (2004) and a shortlived live action series called Cutie Honey: the Live (2007) that saw Mikie Hara (原 幹恵) taking up the mantle as Honey Kisaragi on national television. A sequel (or rather more of a soft reboot) would only materialize some twelve years later. Cutie Honey: Tears (2016) went for a more serious direction and a darker, edgier tone that took more after Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy (2005-2012). The long awaited sequel saw former gravure model Mariya Nishiuchi (西内 まりや) taking on Satô’s role and donning the famous pink bustier (one far more practical and not nearly as tacky/revealing). Two years later a new anime series followed with Cutie Honey Universe (2018). In the years since no new plans for a Cutie Honey sequel (or reboot) were announced. Regardless, there’s a time and place for adorable camp like this and Cutie Honey offers a copious helping of just that.