Title: Air Doll
Director: Hirokazu Koreeda
Notes: Based on the comic “Kuuki Ningyo,” by Yoshiie Gōda.
TLDR: Amelie, if Amelie was an inflatable sex doll that magically came to life, and if Amelie made you really, really sad.
“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?”
— Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
All the Lonely People
In the first scene of “Air Doll,” the director tells us two things: A) This is not family-friendly fare, and B) This is a film about the things people do because of loneliness.
When we meet Nozomi, she is a $60.00 sex doll with a place at her owner’s dinner table. He talks to her. He shows her stars and tells her she not to be jealous because she’s more beautiful than the constellations.
And then Nozomi transforms, by some magical wind carrying a soul, into a living girl. Played by Korean actress Bae Doona, Nozomi’s motions resemble a stunned child or a trauma victim, but the first word she utters, while looking out the window, is “beautiful.”
She follows around some folks in town, imitating and eavesdropping, and the first act of the film is about the enchantment of the world. Nozomi is a child – an open-eyed child with a beautiful body and a kinky maid’s outfit wandering around discovering the world.
She keeps her life a secret from her “husband,” miserably keeping the frozen rubber positions she’s placed in. She has a soul now, she thinks to herself; a soul she knows she was never supposed to have. She is, in her own words, “a substitute.”
Nozomi is a “manic pixie dream girl” and as such is utterly endearing to every man she meets. Japan, more than any other culture, desires youth – not just youth, but innocence – in women. And Nozomi is innocent enough, for the first part of the film, to never know what death is, despite being surrounded by it.
But her liberated life is not so great. She’s often complaining to her male companions about how difficult it is to understand anything. She’s absolutely terrible at her job and men have to rescue her out of being “useless,” which she recognizes.
One of those men-saviors is an old mystical man who compares her to a may fly – an insect who is born only to have its body filled with eggs; an entire life dedicated to the birth of others. Mayflies eat their way out of their mothers to be born. Some people, he says, are no different.
The mystical old homeless man teaches her a poem which focuses the next ten minutes of the film into a beautiful description of loneliness. It’s from here that the film begins to escalate in its beauty, only to cascade into a free-fall of depressing existential horror.
“Having a heart is heartbreaking.”
We meet an alcoholic binge eater; a sweaty chronic masturbator and of course, the guy who has dinner with his sex doll. People are too isolated to notice that Nozomi finds them interesting, complicated and beautiful.
But where even in the best films about magical women who liberate men from their mediocre lives – Amelie is the best I can think of – the women fulfill their role and life, we presume, is lived happily ever after. Air Doll does not take this route.
Nozomi, by the film’s end, is so dedicated to being the light of mediocre men’s lives that she is eventually destroyed – in some ways, literally – by all the things men have in lieu of whimsy. Namely, psychological and sexual insecurities. And then, as a figurine who can only imitate the beautiful things around her, she ends up destroying herself and the things she loves in what is, perversely, a perfect ending.
It’s a fairy tale about human nature, sex and loneliness, but the outcome of the film is dismally hopeless except in its most stringent existentialist reading. Nozomi’s death, though unnoticed, triggers a wave of beauty – sure. But after watching Nozomi move from start to finish, we don’t know how long any beauty will last, or if beauty is enough to save anyone at all.