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March 22, 2012

Air Doll

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Kuki Ningyo
Hirokazu Koreeda - 2009
AVE All Region DVD

I've had this film as part of my unseen DVD pile for longer than I care to admit. What inspired me to watch it now was reading that the film was part of the recent series at New York City's Japan Society, "Love will Tear Us Apart".

I might be wrong, but I am thinking that unlike several of Koreeda's other films, Air Doll was never picked up for stateside release because the narrative goes against the expectations one might have about its basic premise. Perhaps most radical is that the film is told mostly from the point of view of the title character. Nozomi is first seen as the silent companion and sex toy for a man, Hideo, whose job running a restaurant brings one complaint after another. Nozomi discovers herself awake with a heart, and walks out into the world, actually a small neighborhood outside of Tokyo.

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And while there are comic scenes, Koreeda's film can be more rightly described as a wistful look at what it means to be human. The symbolism is there on the surface regarding people as being as disposable as trash, or easily replaceable. Koreeda also breaks from Nozomi to show the lives of several people in the neighborhood whom Kozomi encounters, all of whom are dealing with loneliness in their own lives. Some of what happens can be interpreted more than one way as when Nozomi, accidentally causing herself to deflate while working at a local video store, is revived by fellow worker Junichi. The implications of Junichi breathing life back into Nozumi can be read as theological, although the way it is presented is also sexually charged.

One might ascribe some cultural significance to having the title role played by Korean actress Doona Bae. Aside from not being Japanese, Bae is unconventionally attractive. Bae has probably been most widely seen in The Host, but the performance that ties in with her earlier work would be Linda, Linda, Linda where Bae played the Korean high school exchange student who accidentally becomes the singer of an all girl band. Bae's performance here is physical, especially when Nozumi first comes alive, with almost mechanical movements. First walking, the gait is like that of a toddler in the body of a slender young woman, awkward and sometimes tentative. Also Bae's eyes seem unusually large, especially when she is in the process of observing the activity around her, trying to make sense of what she sees. Nozumi first appears dressed in a maid's uniform, one of the fetish outfits Hideo has bought for Nozumi. What may be a point of contention is that while Nozumi always dresses in a way that is fitting for someone, or something, that functions as a sexual object, that objectification is almost neutralized by Nozumi's self knowledge.

That Nozumi only looks human is reinforced several times with shots of her parts of her body, including seams along her neck and the air hole in her belly. Even when she acts human, Nozumi will revert to being a listless sex toy when necessary. While Koreeda made the film with the assumption that the metaphorical aspects would be understood, he simultaneously plays on Nozumi's literal interpretations of symbolic language. While there have been comparisons to Pinocchio, the classic doll come to life, one might also find a comparison to James Whale's interpretation of the Frankenstein monster.

Koreeda explains some of his choices regarding the making of Air Doll in this interview.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at March 22, 2012 08:59 AM