Director – Hirokazu Kore-eda – 2009 – Japan – Cert. 18 – 111m
Fantasia Film Festival 2020 virtual edition from Thursday, August 20.
An unusual film for director Kore-eda, closer to After Life (1998) than almost anything else he’s done because of both fantasy element and whimsical tone. An inflatable sex doll is affectionately cared for by its owner Hideo (Itsujo Itao) who has sex with it at night. He has named the doll Nozomi after a former girlfriend. One morning when he’s at work, Nozomi wakes up as a flesh and blood woman played by Doona Bae, goes to the window and feels rainwater on her hands.
Nozomi tries on some of her (sexualised fetish) clothes, settling on a chambermaid costume. She heads out into the world, where everyone is busy getting to school or work. She follows an old widow (Sumiko Fuji) around, then a party of young schoolchildren. She passes an old man in a park. Eventually she stumbles into the video store where Junichi (Arata) works. The shop appears to her as a wonderland and she lands herself the counter assistant’s job. However she’s not very good at it, her experience of life being virtually nil and her knowledge of movies even less. So Junichi takes her under his wing.
Kore-eda treats his humanised doll as a woman with a childlike sense of curiosity. At the same time Nozomi talks herself into contentment at being a substitute receptacle for male desire, allowing herself to be sexually abused regularly by her own owner and on occasion also by the video shop owner. When Hideo is around in his home, she pretends to be as lifeless as before. Strangely, he can’t tell any difference between the synthetic he purchased and the flesh and blood woman now gracing his bed, an element which gives these scenes an air of unreality.
The director is much more interested in this heroine than her owner, though, imbuing Nozomi with a sense of fragility and innocence and putting her though a series of educational scenarios. In a restaurant she observes the birthday party of near neighbour Moe (Miu Naraki) set up by the little girl’s father (Tomomi Maruyama). She discovers mortality by discussing the brief life span of flowers with Junichi. She visits her craftsman maker (Joe Odagiri) in his workshop who shows her a pile of discarded sex dolls. “I doubt if God himself could answer your questions,” he says.
Nozomi forms a bond with Junichi. He sees her cut her hand in the shop and promptly, embarrassingly deflate. As they start going out, he initiates a ritual where he deflates her then blows air into her belly. She tries to repeat this on him, opening his stomach with scissors and breathing into his mouth, inadvertently killing him. She ends up a reject on a pile of garbage, or if you prefer the curious, tacked-on ending, a real woman being wished happy birthday in a restaurant.
This charming and engaging film posits a fascinating metaphor for a country where women have historically been required to be subservient and perhaps in retrospect the wider #metoo world as well. The living doll dissatisfies her owner who prefers the old status quo where she’s passive but she nevertheless moves forward. Nothing has prepared her for the real world, however, and she makes mistakes. The one she makes in her tentative relationship with Junichi proves fatal for them both.
Air Doll played Fantasia Film Festival 2020 virtual edition from Thursday, August 20.