'Air Doll': A Wistful Pinocchio With An Unlikely Past

Bae Doo-na, Arata

An Affair To Remember: Nozomi (Bae Doo-na, left) falls for Junichi (Arata), a video-store clerk who isn't worried that she's younger than she looks -- or that she began life as an inflatable sex toy. Palisades Tartan hide caption

itoggle caption Palisades Tartan

Air Doll

  • Director: Hirokaza Kore-eda
  • Genre: Comic Drama
  • Running Time: 116 minutes
Not rated: Sexual situations, nudity, violence

With: Bae Doo-na, Arata, Itsuji Itao, Joe Odagiri

T.S. Eliot surely wasn't thinking of vinyl women when he wrote The Hollow Men, his lament about spiritual emptiness and the loss of hope. But an inflatable sex doll proves a fine metaphor for hollowness in the latest film from Hirokazu Kore-eda, the most acclaimed Japanese director of his generation.

Overly long and occasionally clumsy, Air Doll can't be counted among Kore-eda's best. But much of it is lovely and expressive, and it's one of those films that can haunt viewers long after they've left the theater. Freely adapted from a short manga, Air Doll is Pinocchio with a Japanese outlook and an erotic twist: One day in a shabby working-class Tokyo neighborhood, an anatomically correct blowup doll called Nozomi (Japanese for "hope") discovers that she's become a real woman.

Donning a sexy maid's costume — the wardrobe available to her is limited – Nozomi (Bae Doo-na) begins to explore what's outside the tiny house she shares with Hideo (Itsuji Itao), a grumpy waiter who treats her like the wife he'll probably never have. (Before taking his doll to bed, Hideo sits her at the dinner table and tells her about his day.)

Nozomi gets a part-time job at a video-rental shop, where she finds a sort of love with a shy clerk named Junichi (played by one-named Kore-eda regular Arata). At the shop, she learns about the much wider world represented in movies (also a theme of the filmmaker's Afterlife); in this film DVDs are dreams fashioned in plastic, not unlike Nozomi herself.

The doll has questions about her new existence, so she goes to find her maker. This is one of several sequences that don't quite work, although it's not as badly misjudged as the bloody incident that ends Nozomi's relationship with Junichi. As Nozomi investigates what it means to be human, Kore-eda expands his focus to include vignettes of her lonely neighbors; as in the director's Nobody Knows, Tokyo is revealed as a city of physical proximity and emotional distance.

Kore-eda began his career making documentaries, and he contrasts Air Doll's whimsical story with naturalistic details, notably when depicting sexuality: Nozomi's first (and unconventional) orgasm is funny and innocent, but the aftereffects of sex with an inflatable woman are messy and forthrightly shown.

Itsuji Itao i i

Substitute Spouse: Even as she explores her growing humanity and finds a soulmate in Junichi, Nozomi continues her duties in the home of her original owner (Itsuji Ijao), who takes care of her and treats her like the wife he doesn't have. Palisades Tartan hide caption

itoggle caption Palisades Tartan
Itsuji Itao

Substitute Spouse: Even as she explores her growing humanity and finds a soulmate in Junichi, Nozomi continues her duties in the home of her original owner (Itsuji Ijao), who takes care of her and treats her like the wife he doesn't have.

Palisades Tartan

The story doesn't neglect its context. Even though she's not fully flesh and blood, Nozomi reflects the status of women in patriarchal Japan. And because she's played by a Korean actress — best known to U.S. audiences from The Host and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance — the doll is also a comment on Japanese insularity. Nozomi is pretty and engaging, but her accent marks her as an alien.

As such, she identifies with other outcasts, as well as with children. In one sweet moment, Nozomi emulates the walking style of a group of young kids, who are marching to school singing, "Don't copy me." It's the sort of scene in which Bae excels, subtly embodying the complexity of the doll's reactions to her transformation.

To the movie's gentle mix of comedy and drama, Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (who shot the sumptuous In the Mood for Love) adds fluid tracking shots that contribute to the tale's quiet melancholy. The mood is also furthered by a delicate score composed by the Japanese electronic composer who calls himself World's End Girlfriend.

It's that mood that lingers. Air Doll's storytelling is erratic, and its conclusion unsatisfying. Yet the movie conjures up a sense of longing that should touch anyone who's ever felt as if there's something missing inside.

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