Fitting that Nozomi (The Host’s Bae Du-na), a life-size inflatable erotic doll come to life, learns about the world while working at a video store, as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll cares not for gritty reality but merely the stuff of fairy-tale movies, of which Mannequin, Lars and the Real Girl, Pinocchio, and Amélie make up its mushy flesh and bones. Think of it as Sex Toy Story, an insufferably precious saga of humping and magic in which Nozomi awakens one morning to realize, “I found myself with a heart I was not supposed to have,” admires water droplets as “beautiful,” and then secretly abandons the home of her middle-aged owner Hideo (Itsuji Itao), who recounts his workday to his companion doll at night before screwing (and then cleaning) her, to discover everything there is to know about everything.
What Nozomi finds out while riding boats, grocery shopping, and being schooled about cinema by co-worker Junichi (Arata) is that people are lonely and don’t see the beauty in the everyday, a condition plaguing a variety of briefly glimpsed caricatures like Boy Jerking Off to Internet Doll Porn and Woman Gorging on Food Inside Garbage-Strewn Apartment. As with Audrey Tautou’s pixie Amélie, Nozomi—replete with visible plastic seams and a belly button air nozzle—perceives life’s wonders with pure, childlike eyes, in the process determining that “having a heart was heartbreaking” and coming to understand concepts such as love, togetherness, and death. Utilizing muted, twinkly music and graceful pans that want to convey exploratory wonder but feel aimless, Kore-eda positions this fantasy as an address of both male sexual attitudes toward women (since Hideo doesn’t even comprehend that Nozomi has become real even after her transformation) as well as the clichéd “lonely urban condition,” with Nozomi having an influence on all those similarly “empty” lost souls she meets along her journey.
Neither aim, alas, is treated with anything more than superficial seriousness, as the writer-director’s interest in desire and longing is habitually channeled through quirky-quick brushstrokes that reduce the already borderline-pretentious proceedings into full-blown treacle. The affectation of Air Doll’s faux-melancholy and counterfeit profundity is enough to make one gaseous, especially as the story winds down to a finale in which Nozomi comes face to face with mortality—first someone else’s, and then her own via—spoiler alert!—a deathbed dream involving her eating food and having everyone sing her “Happy Birthday.” Living is sad and dying is happy, Nozomi ultimately gathers, all while a young girl who loves The Little Mermaid leaves Nozomi a toy doll and yet another alienated nobody looks down at Nozomi’s thrown-out corpse and muses “beautiful,” thereby completing Kore-eda’s circle-of-life rumination on the inherent joy and misery of human existence. His hot-air film captures the latter facet perfectly.
Air Doll will play on February 23 and 27 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.