There is no reason why an inflatable sex doll spontaneously comes to life at the beginning of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Air Doll. It just seems to happen, and thus begins a tale of a toy’s explorations of human life and interaction. Maybe it happens because her owner, a lonely, introverted Tokyo salaryman, has invested so much energy in believing her to be a real partner that she is given agency: when we first see them together, they are having dinner, him telling her the gossip from the office while she “listens” passively. She shows the same composure throughout their subsequent one-sided sexual encounter:
By the next day, she has come to life. It probably doesn’t matter what animates her, and it is never expalined: her job, as with so many stories of living dolls, puppets and toys is not to essay the inner life of recreational objects, but to explore the outskirts of what it means to be human, specifically what it means to relate to and communicate with other humans. Most of the film follows Nozomi (Bae Doona) as she tours the streets and observes the life around her. Formerly a vessel for one man’s imaginative fantasies (e.g. the fantasy that she returns his adoration, but also the fantasy of the pliant, eternally agreeable partner), she becomes a blank slate for sensory experiences, absorbing stimuli like a child in a hastened state of early development. It is an awakening, but it also makes her a different kind of fantasy figure – the pliable innocent female archetype. The film ostensibly asks what happens when an object of desire is suddenly able to think for herself and establish her own goals and ideals; how would an innocent today construct a sense of self out of the social ingredients on offer, and how would that self behave? But it never quite shakes off the sentimental trope of the little girl lost, preferring instead to tell a touching tale of innocence corrupted and crushed.
Outsiders are fascinated by tales of Japanese relationships with objects: their love of dolls, toys and character-based merchandise, robots, automata and anthropomorphic gadgets. This fascination either reflects a pitying external gaze that sees this as a misplaced love of machines and dead things, or an explosive culture of fun and invention that sits in contrast to the image of Japan as an uptight land of ritual and formal rigidity. I have no doubt that this is an exoticised sideways glance that misses a lot of cultural truths about Japan (see note at the bottom of this post), but Kore-Eda does seem skeptical about the ability of objects to help mediate affectionate interactions between people. Nozomi is a wide-eyed innocent who sees all the beauty in the things we tend to miss. Many scenes rely on her pure delight at flowers, a statue (with which she feels some affinity), having her photograph taken, a cityscape or a trip on a boat, or feeling the wind in her face as she clings to her lover on a motorcycle seat (I seem to see this as a staple of Asian cinema to indicate a moment of release and sollipsistic joy and safety, but right now I can only think of its appearance in Fallen Angels and Three Times off the top of my head – any more examples you can think of?). She also observes, again naively, how “empty” everyone around her is (the obvious irony being that she is the one full of air), starved of human contact. One woman who appears intermittently undergoes obsessive cosmetic surgery to make herself feel more presentable to the world, judging herself entirely by the way she is seen instead of looking outwards for what she desires. The conclusion might be that “having a heart is heartbreaking”, a summary of the film’s play with insights that might be disposibly banal if not put forward with a sparkling, soft-toned look that gives all of Nozomi’s experiences the misty feel of waking moments. Kore-Eda can use this aesthetic as the base for disruptive shots of unpleasant materiality, as when we get to see her detaching and washing out her plastic vagina to clean out the traces of the last guy who treated her as a receptacle.
But Nozomi learns most about the world by getting part-time work in a DVD rental store, Cinema Circus. She makes a list of recommended films so that she can learn what people like and appear knowledgeable – even her growing library of interactions is partially compiled from second-hand assessment of surrogate views of the world: Kore-Eda seems to spare cinema from the glare of opprobrium he directs at other forms of “artificial” experience. She swaps the maid’s outfit she has been given for something more modest, covers up her plastic seams and air holes with make-up (although she has appeared to become flesh, she still has traces of her dollhood, a transparent shadow and a tendency to deflate if pierced) – again her engagement with the world begins with her moderating how she presents herself to people, knowing that there is a core to her identity that must be kept secret.
This all sounds a bit Pinocchio (via Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence): a figure who treads a boundary being animate and inanimate, between alive and dead, between newborn and grown explores the world and inadvertently presents didactic readings of the situations she encounters. This is a status often granted to synthetic beings – Pinocchio’s wish to become a “real boy” (a small part of the book which is foregrounded in subsequent adaptations) was really just a device to entice him to conform, behave and become a “real contributor to polite society”. She even gets the customary meeting with her creator, in an eerie return to the workshop that made her. But the film I was more strongly reminded of was Ron Howard’s Splash!, maybe because it had a formative influence on me as the first romantic comedy I was taken to see (initially reluctant to see a film without spaceships or Superman in, I was secretly entranced by it). There is the same troubling conflation of naivety and fantasy. In both cases the naif character is an endearing innocent who is also frankly, availably sexual. From this angle, the film is hobbled by that reductive impasse – it wants to allegorise the objectification of women (though I suspect Kore-Eda might want to make universalist statements about the subjection of all peoples, since Nozomi finds common ground with men and women of varying social status who are similarly stuck in lonely cycles of behaviour provoked by their failures to interact freely with others), but falls into that old trap of lingering on the naked female body as an object of spectacle. She becomes dependent on others for her sexual gratification, but at least can tell the difference between desire and being the unwilling object of desire, her body reverting to its inert state when she is blackmailed into submitting to her boss’s advances, but literally brought back to life by the breath of a sought-after lover when she begins to deflate.
Nozomi’s need to be breathed into, and the sexual feelings generated by being filled with another’s life force is a simple erotic metaphor for human co-dependency (though maybe a bicycle pump might have done the same job), and one that works effectively to give her an escape route from other forms of sexual subjection that had rendered her defenceless. So far, so interesting, so I’m not sure why Kore-Eda needed the deeply depressing conclusion [PLEASE STOP READING NOW IF YOU WISH TO AVOID A SPOILER OF THE FILM’S ENDING] whereby Nozomi accidentally kills her lover in an attempt to give him an air hole like her own. She deposits his punctured corpse in a rubbish bag and dies, similarly discarded amongst the city’s everyday detritus. She had learned a lot about what it means to live and to desire (and how to do one fully is to do the other by default), but not enough to understand the needs and identity of another. Was she too defined by her own object status to ever recognise the organic integrity of others? It’s a grim existential twist, but almost feels like an automatically maudlin ending to compound the sympathy we’re asked to feel for this character. Her fate is sealed by genre conventions, a sacrificial condemnation of a society’s inability to connect emotionally.
If all this sounds routine and tacky, I should add that in sum, it works because of Kore-Eda’s willingness to juxtapose the sweetly magical with the lustily carnal, and even more importantly because of Bae Doona’s mesmerising performance. She can switch between innocent curiosity or oblivious sexuality to pirouetting delight and breathy yearning with astonishing ease. This ability for an actress to imbue a character with life strikes me as the film’s other big allegory – the capacity of cinema to construct for us surrogate selves, mirrors of identity, and the wish for recognition that is expressed when we enter into relationships with these fictions that speak and move on our behalf.
- Though it’s not quite examining the same phenomenon, Jennifer Robertson’s work on robots and gender in Japanese society argues that humanoid robots with clearly delineated gender characteristics are being used to reaffirm what are seen as traditional gender identities, or are deflecting the need for immigrant labour at a time of an ageing population and declining birth rates – instead of bringing in migrant workers to keep up productivity, Robertson suggests, Japan is developing robots to fill many roles in homes and workplaces. They are also expected to save on housework, leaving Japanese women, who are increasingly reluctant to marry young due to the loss of personal, professional and financial autonomy it delivers, more free to have children. If this is true, then, it would suggest that Japan is moving towards using human simulacra to shore up desired modes of behaviour, to prevent slippage into gender ambiguity, by creating visibly gendered robots which can be seen enacting a passive and predetermined femininity. Unlike migrant workers, robots can be trusted to bring no “inconvenient historical baggage”, having “neither cultural differences nor, in the case of (especially) East Asians, unresolved historical (or wartime) memories to contend with.” Air Doll is the fantasy of a human simulacrum that wakes up from this state of emptiness and inertia and sets about creating her own history. (Jennifer Robertson, ‘Gendering Humanoid Robots: Robo-sexism in Japan.’ Body and Society 16.1 (2010): 1-36.
- Midnight Eye review by Tom Mes.
- Gradland’s review, a perceptive analysis from a female perspective.
- 5 Clips from the film at Nippon Cinema.
- Review at Asia Shock.
See more of my frame grabs from Air Doll in the slideshow below:Vodpod videos no longer available.