Life can be simultaneously achingly complicated and blisteringly simple. Work, rent, economy, society… It’s exhausting. Especially these days, am I right? But also, if we’re so lucky, there’s a simplicity to humanity that we can all hopefully enjoy in some capacity. Being together with others, connecting and sympathizing, empathizing. Enjoying hobbies together.
The premise of Japanese contemporary Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll, in which an inflatable sex doll comes to life, might sound like fodder for a crude comedy or a kinky, quirky time. Instead, the film finds its place squarely in the filmmakers’ canon of deeply-human, sweet films about people trying to carve out a little bit of happiness in the dense metropolis of Tokyo.
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Release Date: May 14, 2009 (Cannes Film Festival), February 4, 2022 (US; limited, VOD)
In 2022, Air Doll is appearing to many US viewers for the first time, long after its 2009 release in Japan and other countries. Kore-eda came to the attention of a wider audience with films like Still Walking and Like Father, Like Son, but it was Shoplifters, his 2018 film propelled by winning the coveted Palm d’Or at Cannes and receiving several major awards nominations, that made the name familiar to international audiences. Those films, relatable human dramas largely about family and reconciling with what might define “family,” would seem, at surface level, in stark contrast with Air Doll’s fable. South Korean star Bae Doona (Cloud Atlas, The Host) leads as Nozomi, our titular, sentient doll, navigating the world as an “object” while still finding that, even with flesh and blood, people struggle to connect.
Whisked to life by magic, essentially, Nozomi is enchanted by the simplicity of her surroundings, stepping outside (fully clothed, thankfully) and trying to play with school children in the neighborhood, fixating on the storefronts and daytime foot traffic until she reaches a video rental store. Taken in by the owner and employee Junichi (Arata) who ends up giving her a job, she develops a deep relationship with him founded on his want to help educate this strange, modern Pinocchio.
Kore-eda’s earlier films -like the excellent After Life- leaned more into a documentary style of photography, while Air Doll and his more recent films have a tranquil, unflashy stillness. That’s to say the look and feel of the film, its pacing and punchlines (or lack thereof), are understated, Nozomi’s internal monologue fading in occasionally as she reflects, somberly, on the nature of her predicament. It’s Nozomi’s understanding of her own artificiality that makes much of Air Doll successfully affecting: she reiterates how “empty” she is to the audience, yet still perseveres in her relationship with Junichi, trying to make these connections and learn about the world.
For its quiet success, Air Doll is an interesting notch in Kore-eda’s filmography, further establishing his interest in humanity and the ties that bind people to each other, pushing his own philosophical musings to an allegorical state (“Can an inanimate object learn to grapple with humanity?”) while still retaining much of the tender, matter-of-fact style that he’s established.
It’s interesting though because Air Doll both does and doesn’t pursue its more fantastical elements. Nozomi eventually meets a Doll Maker (Joe Odagiri), speaking to him as if he were her god. An open dialogue about existence would seem, on paper, to be a philosophical puzzle box, yet Kore-eda’s script, based on a manga by Yoshiie Gōda, doesn’t try to make grand statements or allow the film to escape its own characters and story.
Coming from 13 years in the past, Air Doll serves as something of a visual time capsule for little things. The prominence of a video store, where Hollywood films like Hellboy and 300 dote the shelves, is in itself a relic, sad to say. Moreover, it’s interesting to see where Kore-eda was at this time as a filmmaker and storyteller, now that we’ve known him to go on to other, perhaps “better” films: I’m a huge fan of After the Storm from 2016. But for devotees and those looking for a slice of (fantasy) life, Air Doll is absolutely worth investigating, and shouldn’t leave you cold to the touch!