15:26 - 3rd June 2013, by David West

Air Doll

Hideo (Itsuji Itao) lives an unassuming existence as a waiter in a restaurant. Every day, he comes home to his 'other half', Nozomi, and has dinner with her while he tells her about his work. He brags about how he keeps the restaurant running smoothly, while in truth, he is a lowly waiter who is scolded by his boss whenever he gets an order wrong. Then they go to bed. The twist in this idyllic scenario is that Nozomi is actually a blow up sex doll.

One day, as Hideo heads off to the restaurant, Nozomi comes to life. The inflatable girl, dressed in the maid's outfit Hideo bought for her, ventures outside the small apartment and begins to explore her unfamiliar surroundings with wide-eyed wonder...

Hirokazu Kore'eda's Air Doll brings to mind the existential fables of novelist Italo Calvino. Hirokazu is not interested in why Nozomi has come to life - the script offers no explanation at all - but is more concerned with what it means to be human. The film has a sombre mood, but it is weightlessly carried on the slender shoulders of Doona Bae as Nozomi. She brings an innocence to the character that negates any potential sense of voyeurism, even when she is walking around completely nude. Bae's performance is suffused with an almost alien strangeness. Nozomi picks up language from overheard conversations and learns to interact with other people, but she never sheds her aura of otherworldliness or the vulnerability of the naive.
As Nozomi explores her neighbourhood she develops a life of her own independent of Hideo. She finds a job at a video store where she forms a friendship with her co-worker Junichi (Arata) and an attraction slowly grows between the two.

The video store allows Kore'eda to express one of the themes of the story - while Nozomi represents a fantasy girl to Hideo, everyone has their own dreams and fantasies to help them escape the drudgeries of daily life. The local police officer who never has any crimes to deal with likes to rent movies about corrupt cops, while the middle-aged manager of the video store loves yakuza movies about wild outlaws. The other recurring motif is the prevalence of artificial women and girls - there is an otaku who collects figurines of his favourite anime heroines, a little girl with a doll, and Hideo with Nozomi. The little girl loves Ariel, the mermaid, a story that has obvious parallels with Nozomi's attempts to try to live as a human being.

Kore'eda returns to an idea he explored in his earlier film Nobody Knows, about the isolation of people in big cities. This is played out through several characters - the old man who spends his time sitting in a park, the bulimic young woman binging and purging in her trash-strewn apartment, and Hideo, who seeks solace in a blow up doll, unable to deal with the complexities of a real relationship. When Nozomi becomes sentient, she hides her transformation from Hideo, allowing him to preserve his illusion.

Whilst the premise might suggest a cheeky comedy, this is actually haunting tale told with skill and subtlety.
SCORE: 4/5
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