Hirokazu Koreeda’s seinen manga adaptation, AIR DOLL, tells the story of an inflatable sex toy (Bae Doo-Na) who transforms, Pinocchio-style, into a real Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Her owner, a waiter named Hideo (Itsuji Itao), treats her with a love and tenderness which leave her unmoved – he has named her “Nozomi” after an ex-girlfriend, and she knows that she is nothing more than a “substitute”. She keeps her burgeoning humanity secret, and drifts into town when Hideo is at work.
He’s a taciturn, undemanding lover who reflects her own cheap, doll-like beauty.
In conversation with the people she meets in the street, Nozomi makes frequent allusions to her emptiness. This provokes in many disillusioned strangers a comparison to the spiritual emptiness of human life, although when they learn that she is speaking literally, they don’t find the concept of a living doll surprising or even remarkable. Even Nozomi’s Geppetto (pretty heartthrob Joe “Odajo” Odagiri, Japan’s answer to Johnny Depp), although warmer than some of the other characters, shows a disappointing equanimity toward Nozomi’s transformation. She is even able to get a job in a video store. Unmoved by Hideo’s vulnerability and sentiment, the fake plastic film fan finds herself attracted to the most insipid character in the story: Junichi (Arata Iura). He’s a taciturn, undemanding lover who reflects her own cheap, doll-like beauty. Their chaste trysts nod to AMELIE, from Nozomi’s page-boy bob to the accordion music in the soundtrack, and cinematographer Pin Bing Lee’s warm way with colour. Each night, though, Nozomi returns to Hideo’s apartment and slips into bed, ready to welcome, comfort and cradle her lonely owner. For now, she does not reveal herself to Hideo as a living creature, evincing cold indifference even when there is no risk of discovery.
Junichi maintains the same level of vapidity throughout the film – even during the jarringly brutal scene which begins the film’s denouement. It’s an event that belongs in one of Lucky McKee’s black comedy horror stories, but in this context it’s alienating and confusing. Nozomi’s deep naïveté is largely restricted to areas such as biology and emotion – she instantly understands the world of consumerism, and can function in a shop as customer or attendant. In this scene, though, Nozomi’s behaviour stretches credibility, and the only explanation for Junichi’s baffling lack of reaction is perhaps that in this world, where the boundaries of artifice and humanity are so blurred, he actually is more doll than human.
… she wistfully sniffs the perfume of Junichi’s breath from a puncture in her wrist.
If Nozomi is no more than a “substitute” sex partner, she’s not the only cipher in the film. A depressed young woman, estranged from her mother and living in a nest of litter – a sexually frustrated young man who is terrified of women – Nozomi drifts past them without touching their lives. Bae Doo-Na’s stiff, unblinking wonder, melting slowly as she adopts the easy gait of a real girl, is impressive and even endearing if you have the stomach for that kind of thing – hard to believe this actor played the heroic, crossbow wielding aunty in THE HOST. But the lack of insight into the lives of those she encounters is frustrating, not least when we glimpse Hideo’s life. A gentle, complex character, when he finally discovers Nozomi’s transformation he asks her to change back, and explains that he has chosen to live with a doll because human beings “irritate” him. Itsuji Itao, who appeared in TOKYO GORE POLICE as a mad scientist and is known as a comedian, is regrettably underused here.
The image that inspired the story – a sex toy physically aroused by the act of inflation – is original and fascinating. “Life contains its own absence, which only an other can fulfill,” Nozomi remarks. Plump with the breath of her lover, and not with the air from Hideo’s little foot pump, she finds the fulfilment that conventional affection couldn’t provide, and in one sweet and inventive scene she wistfully sniffs the perfume of Junichi’s breath from a puncture in her wrist.
Is she telling us that damage is a sign of life?
The chemistry and philosophy of RUBY SPARKS, another story about a woman love-object who is a blank canvas, are missing in AIR DOLL. Koreeda’s message is difficult to divine – the loneliness and tristesse which the characters endure prove transient, but there is no catalyst for the shreds of hope that appear in their lives, least of all the oblivious Nozomi. Visiting the factory where she was made, she stoops to smudge the lips of a discarded sex doll, observing that they must all be human, as their damage is a sign of prolonged use – and from this Nozomi extrapolates proof of love shown to another living creature. Is she telling us that damage is a sign of life?
“Don’t copy me, Mister Echo,” sings the crocodile of schoolchildren Nozomi encounters during one of her strolls – and maybe her long-winded aphorisms are nothing but burbling reverberations, like the sound of the sea in a beachcombed bottle – all part of the pretty ephemera which is there to lift us from our woes, if we would only stop to breathe. Perhaps the sex doll teaches us that we should learn to be as mindful and joyful in life as we are when focussed on sexual gratification.
AIR DOLL is available on DVD, brought to you by Matchbox Films.