We all know the story of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who longed to be a real boy. When he finally got his wish, things didn’t go quite to plan and at one point he burns his feet off. There’s also that whole lying/long nose thing … The gist of the story is that Pinocchio is an inanimate object that is defined by his maker until he finds the gumption to go out and define himself.
Well, flash forward to 2000 (when Goda Yoshiie’s original manga was published) or 2009 (for the film) and to the kind of re-working of Pinocchio that could only happen in Japan. The toy of choice for lonely hearts in this iteration is a blow up sex doll — and not just any sex doll by the way. This is a high quality item that puts those frat boy prank blow-ups to shame.
The concept is solid, and to suggest that director Kore-eda Hirokazu might be a one trick pony is tantamount to blasphemy in some circles. However after a making a moderate splash with Afterlife and following up with the superior Distance (which was saved by star Asano Tadanobu and DOP Yamasaki Yutaka), he finally hit his stride with the tragic and moving Nobody Knows. Kore-eda is a good filmmaker but he’s not a genius. And he’s finally showing that he is capable of fumbling the proverbial ball.
As a meditation on urban isolation, anonymity and loneliness, Air Doll is relatively affecting. The lives of the characters — all representative sketches more than full-on people – are revealed in flashes that signal a social type: Terajima Susumu (is there ever enough of this guy?) as beat cop Todoroki; Yoshiko, an OL afraid for her youth and her job; Samezu, a widower living in denial; and single dad Shinji. We get more detail on just a few, one being Hideo (Itao Itsuji, 9 Souls, Tokyo Gore Police), a typical salaryman that arrives at home seemingly to an adoring wife. What is eventually exposed is a desperately disconnected man whose most fulfilling relationship is with his sex doll.
Kore-eda gets deeper into the subject when said doll, Nozomi as Hideo has dubbed her, comes to life one day (it kind of looks like she gets ‘watered’). Nozomi (Bae Doo-na, The Host) promptly dresses like a Harajuku girl, ventures out into the world and gets a job at the local video store. It’s here she meets the film’s other notable character, Junichi (Arata, Distance, Snakes and Earrings). They eventually get romantic.
One of the beauties of Air Doll is that it’s played (painfully) straight. No one freaks out or wonders, ‘What’s up with the plastic chick?’. Junichi discovers her secret when Nozomi catches her arm on a light fixture. Uh oh. Hot bulb plus plastic girl equals deflation! He patches her up (no, really, he patches her) and that moment kick-starts their emotional connection. All of this creates a graceful, bittersweet tone that complements the subject matter. Junichi is every bit as miserable as Hideo, Nozomi and the rest of the neighbourhood denizens.
So where to begin with Air Doll’s more schizophrenic, weaker elements? On the up side is Kore-eda challenging the notion of women as toys that have few options but to be sex objects — literally in this case. When Nozomi finally breaks away and does her own thing there’s an empowering, revelatory mood in the air, particularly when Nozomi discovers sexual pleasure. Let’s just say that scene brings new meaning to the phrase ‘blow job’. However, Air Doll is rife with knotty images and dodgy messages too, least of which is a Korean actress playing what amounts to a sex slave to a Japanese man (only slightly loaded) and the ubiquitous idea of unfettered female sexuality as inherently dangerous. Ironically she’s infantilised by both Kore-eda’s directorial choices and Bae’s performance; she barely reads or speaks and has to be ‘taught’ various tasks by Junichi and later Sonoda (Odagiri Jo), her actual maker. She’s an overwhelmed innocent, easily replaceable, with a libido.
Air Doll is too long and could easily lose 25 minutes of its superfluous exposition (Nozomi is boggled by Tokyo … we get it!), but it’s impeccably shot and meticulously composed, which is sort of to be expected from Kore-eda; it’s not his best work by a long shot. Bae does manage to turn in a brave performance in a role that could easily kill a Korean actress’s career — though the difficulty in distinguishing between the plastic Nozomi and the ‘real’ one is just a tad creepy.