“I’m an air doll, a substitute for handling sexual desire,” says Nozomi, the central character of Air Doll, whenever she is forced to contemplate her purpose and existence in the film. An adaptation of the anime of Yoshiie Gōda, the film which was first released in its native Japan back in 2009 is now available on-demand in the west through Dekanalog releasing.
It’s true, Nozomi is a life-size female inflatable used by her owner Hideo (Itsuji Itao) for a dinner companion and confidant, but largely for sex. During the day however, when he is not around, she becomes a real woman, played by Bae Doona. Able to talk, move and act on her own, she starts to spend more time away from Hideo and create an identity and life of her own.
Air Doll is a slow burner, but necessarily so. Director/writer Hirokazu Kore-eda lets the film take its time in order to builds and develops its characters and plot in meaningful ways. Had it gone at a different pace then neither would not have been so effective. By the end of the film, its emotion-driven moments work so well because of everything that has come before it. In particular, as we follow Nozomi’s growth from the mind of a child to fully independent and free-thinking, before she finally begins contemplating death.
In early scenes Nozomi, reminiscent of Daryl Hannah in Splash, explores the human world, curious about her new surroundings, mesmerised by everything. Eventually she gets a job in a video shop, where she forms a mutual attraction with her co-worker Junichi (Arata Iura), she learns to use make-up to cover the seams on her skin, buys her own clothes. These early experiences of being human are exciting for her, as is every new opportunity – first time eating in a restaurant and going to the beach, even about growing old, something those around her can’t understand.
Throughout Air Doll she interacts with a host of different characters, all of which touch on one of the major themes and issues of Koreda ‘s script: the feeling of loneliness in Japan. Each of Nozomi’s new friends are experiencing loneliness in some form, including a struggling widow and the child of divorced parents. Her instinct are to help remedy people’s loneliness, but the way she was made to ease the feeling is not suitable or going to work for everyone she meets – allowing the film to also touch on the changing of traditional roles of women.
Instead, Nozomi begins to learn compassion for those around her. In particular, for an old man she meets ans forms a meaningful connection with. He used to be a supply teacher, like her only of use in the place of anyone else. She is struck that he goes by with no human or animal companion, as he explains, “having a dog makes you lonely.” A simple touch of the head from Nozomi is enough to ease his inner pain. Seeing how much loneliness can hurt, Nozomi learns the downside of caring. As she puts it, “Having a heart was heartbreaking.”
Air Doll has a lot in common with Steven Spielberg’s A.I. – both about simulacrum humans who are learning what it is like to be human and trying to find their purpose. While on a smaller sclae, Kore-eda’s film is more personal and without the sentimentality and long discourse of Spielberg’s, as such is able to tell its story in a far more naturalistic way and the final result a more relatable and effecting film.
On the one hand Air Doll works as an interesting, solid drama and character study while also addressing much bigger real-world themes and ideas, including loneliness and the roles of women in society. It can feel samey at times, is far from subtle and a bit sluggish for some, but its well-crafted characters and sensibly-handled themes make for an engaging and thought-provoking oddball drama.