(originally published on blogspot)
All those people all those lives, where are they now?
With loves, and hates, and passions just like mine,
They were born and then they lived and then they died,
Seems so unfair,
I want to cry.
Hirokazu Koreeda’s film “Air Doll”, based on Yoshiie Goda’s manga, has a synopsis that, at face value, could inspire titters, which is a great shame considering the end result produces anything but. It tells the simple story of a man, Hideo, (Itsuji Itao) and his sex doll, Nozomi, (Doona Bae), who comes to life and develops a “heart” of her own. The initial scenes juggle pathos, as Hideo looks bereft in a supermarket, and comedy, as Hideo addresses Nozomi as if she were alive and makes love with a startling tenderness.
But one day, as Hideo leaves for work, Nozomi’s eyes move. She looks around the room, and gets out of bed. She places her hand underneath a railing which is dripping with rain water, and she goes from being completely plastic to something approaching human. She does this slowly, and initially its clear that its an animatronic doll, but at some point the doll becomes the actress. This is cleverly handled, and establishes the quiet physicality that Bae maintains for the remainder of the film; stiff limbs, slow jerky movement, a head that never quite moves comfortably.
Soon Nozomi finds herself on the street, and it’s here that the film turns from a curious piece of magical realism into a broad and pondering metaphysical exploration of the meaning of human existence. This is not exaggeration. Scene after scene follows Nozomi as she does things like interacting with children, getting a job, talking to that old dishevelled guy on the bench who you just know probably has an interesting life story, taking her first trip to the restaurant, to the beach, learning what it means to cling onto someone on the back of a motorbike.
The film is basically a parable on learning what it means to be a part of this world. Doona Bae is the perfect actress for this; her eyes are endlessly wide, drinking in the sights of the world with all the fervour of a parched man in the desert. The film transports you back to when you were a child, and calls to mind Wordsworth’s idea that heaven lies about us in our infancy. This is an unfussy film that asks little of the audience, other than to take in what Nozomi takes in, as she takes it in.
The film is unconcerned with the specifics of her status as an ex-sex doll. There is a moment midway through where she cuts her arm on a hinge, deflates, and has to be blown back to life by her co-worker, but even this isn’t handled as a piece of comedy of the kind one might expect with a sex doll, but instead (and later on in the film also) as a metaphor for the way we want to breathe life into the people we love (and that these attempts can often be so ruinous).
There is just so much to observe with this film. It’s crafted with all tenderness of a soft kiss, from the gentle sound design by Yutaka Tsurumaki, to the dreamy and creamy urban cinematography from Ping Bin Lee, which finds a kind of visual poetry amongst the small local shops and big skyscrapers stacked high up past our field of vision, and the streets with black washing lines dangling like bars on sheet music. It is a subtle exercise in empathy, as we find ourselves marvelling at the world in the same way Nozomi does.
The score, from World’s End Girlfriend is a blissful affair. There are several moments where Koreeda leisurely gives way to a montage, flitting from person to person that Nozomi has observed as they face either joyous elation or downtrodden despair, that feel like they were edited to the music after it was composed.
Of course, after the initial rush of giddiness, we develop notions of unfairness, cruelty, and sadness. As Nozomi eventually observes, “having a heart has been so heartbreaking”. But even these revelations are observed gently, and with little force. Compared to Under The Skin, another film about an outsider reacting to humanity for the first time, this is much more hopeful, and optimistic.
This is a film that understands what it means to exist. Koreeda’s eye for detail is unrelenting, and he has turned what could have been a forgettable comedy into a film I doubt I will ever forget. Like the works of Alain De Botton, it configures everyday truths into miniature works of art. As Nozomi quietly observes, “why is it that the world is constructed so loosely?”
It’s a question that we’ll never know the answer to. But it’s healthy to ask things like that every now and again, and the act of asking, of recognising these truths, constitutes some form of an answer all on its own. This film, along with everything else, gets that.