The newest feature by beloved Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Still Walking), Air Doll is the story of a blow-up doll come to life. What's most interesting about the story is not its apparent oddness, but the fact it maintains a sense of fairy tale magic even while it's set in a cold and seemingly hollow world. This interesting view implies a tension between the cynical and the magical: both exist but how either survives is anyone's guess. Lovers of Japanese quirk, the tragic-comic and Kore-eda will approve. The film could earn a broader audience through word of mouth and marketing that targets the cinematically adventurous.
Before we meet the doll (Doona Bae) we meet her similarly nameless owner. Alone and vacant, he rides the train home to his doll, on which he bestows his affection and intimacy like a silent, plastic wife. After dinner and a conversation fit for Bob Newhart, he makes sweet love to her...and then cleans out her equipment. Nearby lives an apple-hoarding sad sack who eats as if filling an abyss inside herself, a father who obsessively brings his daughter things to stuff her backpack with and a shell of an old man who resigns himself to his mortality while obsessing over exoskeleton bugs. These other "living" characters set the stage for the ironic birth of our protagonist, who comes to life under the nose of her unobservant mock husband. Like Amelie from another planet (complete with extensive accordion backscoring) she goes out into the world with wide, plasticy eyes. Unlike Amelie, she's hoping to interface with people she hopes may be other transformed sex toys. Though she has hardly an idea what a movie is, she gets a job at a video store (yes, video) where she rents people "a surrogate for the theatrical experience." She incurs a poetic variety of existential crises, most of which lead her to some poignant, chance communions: she accidentally deflates and makes a boyfriend when her coworker finds her umbilicus and resuscitates her; she notices herself translucent and runs from her missing shadow; she finds her seams, obscures them with makeup and then tries to befriend a woman wearing seamed stockings in confused kinship. It's all peculiar and cute but tinged with a deep loneliness. Hiding from him one night, she watches behind a slatted closet door as her owner returns with a new doll (Cheater!). While he sings her "Happy Birthday," she launches a desperate search for purpose and uncovers the box she came in. In a humiliating turn, she discovers she's a low-rent model and a "substitute for handling sexual desire." The moment reminds one of the scene in Vertigo when, after Scotty has paid quite a bit of money to turn Judy back into Madeline, Judy cries and finally concedes to his fascistic re-identification. Then, he throws one pillow down in front of the fireplace when we all know he'd thrown down two for Madeline. Surrogates, it seems, are always cheap-which is ironic because film is often treated as a surrogate for experience, and that's something Kore-eda seems to regard with a kind of necessary permissiveness. The film somehow suggests that if you concede to surrogate experience you'll end up hollow, too.
Kore-eda permissiveness about surrogacy pairs well with his promiscuous film references-really, they're all over the map. A scene in a doll maker's workshop produces a moment like that had by Buzz Lightyear when confronted with a wall of boxed Buzz Lightyears. A room of broken dolls recalls the reject clone room in Alien: Resurrection (though it tidily trades carnage for plastic). In this world of surrogates (that resemble nothing the world of Surrogates) the most profound conflict hinges on the very humanness of identity. When the doll verbalizes her "birth" she says, "because I found a heart, I told a lie," a phrase she heard before she spoke it. As she says this, the camera tracks forward in the fashion of a horror film. Life and death, the film postulates, really can be found in the cinema-aura, the specter of meaning, what we are in a more substantial and less substantive sense, that the movies can't provide.
Distributor: Palisades Tartan
Cast: Doona Bae, Arata, Itsuji Itao and Sumiko Fuji
Director: Hirokazu Kore-eda
Screenwriters: Hirokazu Kore-eda and Yoshiie Goda
Producers: Toshiro Uratani and Hirokazu Kore-eda
Genre: Dramedy/Adult Fairy Tale; Japanese-language, subtitled
Running time: 125 min
Release date: June 25 ltd.