10+ Years Later: AIR DOLL Has Not Aged a Day
I saw Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Air Doll on the festival circuit during the fall of 2009, in Toronto.
Watching it again over a decade later, I realized what I had taken away from the film was not so much a summation of what happened -- in fact, I recalled little of the story, or the situational details -- but rather a feeling, a tone, a mood, one of curiosity and melancholy intermingled. Also, the uncomfortable sound of vinyl polymer rubbing against itself.
One day, without explanation, a sex doll comes to life, and transforms into a thinking, moving, feeling person, embodied by Korean actress Bae Doo-na. She experiences life and society outside of the cramped Tokyo apartment of her owner, a service worker with a very long commute named Hideo. While he is off waiting tables, she is free to wander the city streets, interact with the (occasionally baffled, but unfailingly polite) community, and pursue her innocent interest in the human condition.
Bae, of course, has gone on to become a global star, fluidly transitioning between Korean, Japanese and American auteur filmmakers and blockbuster projects. Many will know her from The Wachowski's Cloud Atlas and their Netflix Sens8 series, but her performance here is a marvel.
She is cold to the touch, but warm emotionally, in discovering what it is like to become the centre of one's own existence. She is an active witness, and occasional participant, both to the myriad human points of contact in a large city, and to the ubiquitous city workers collecting the ‘burnable garbage’ people have discarded on the public sidewalk just outside their homes.
What she sees, what we see, is the great loneliness of modern existence, laid bare. And keep in mind that this is before the global take-over of smart phones, social media, and global pandemic lock-downs. Kore-eda’s work has often explored the threshold of the community and an ostracized group or individual. He has made a nearly one film per year, every year since. Here in 2022, Air Doll sits almost exactly at the half-way mark in his career as a narrative filmmaker, for which he has received piles of accolades, including the Palm D’Or.
The writer-director’s signature ‘community’ is present in Air Doll, even if they barely meet or interact with one another, disparate souls in walking distance Hideo’s apartment, as he commutes far, far, away. There is the lonely binge-eater drunk on coca cola and carbs, the office worker who is acutely aware of her impending displacement by a younger co-worker, the retired woman who wants to know the latest gory details about a local murder from the beat cop who patrols by each morning, and an ancient man who sits on the loneliest park bench in Tokyo, overlooking an impersonal array of urban residential towers.
A video store, and its employees, factor prominently, blissfully unaware that the notion of physical media, rented from a store, is about to be replaced by streaming. At one point, the owner laments that they are, themselves, the lonely substitute for seeing a film in a cinema with your neighbours.
In his history of cinema documentary series, The Story of Film, which came out a couple years after Air Doll, film critic Mark Cousins spends considerable time on the visual and emotional power of wind. He quotes pioneering silent cinema filmmaker D.W. Griffith: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty, the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.” Koreeda leans into this idea, and delivers a thoroughly modern movie, with the wind -- the breath -- being the soul of his film. It's beautiful in its quiet depiction of the mundane as significant.
Air Doll is not necessarily subtle in what it is about, or how it is about it, but it is patient in its observation. The two key male characters in the film literally, and figuratively, inflate the main character. Hideo, who purchased the sex toy to ease his loneliness, and as a substitute for a girlfriend, emotionlessly uses the included pump after their sexual encounters.
We will see her toss it out with the garbage, soon after she comes to life. The video-store clerk, Junichi, with whom she gently explores a willing relationship, breathes air into her directly at the navel. The visual is framed like an orgasm.
Wind chimes and floating dandelion seeds factor as prominently into the visual language of the film as much as the physical transformation from doll to real girl. Did you know that the dandelion seed has a special kind of air bubble that forms above each seed, which helps keep it aloft longer?
Later, her Geppetto-like creator speaks to her of breath and magic, but notably does nothing to otherwise interfere with her personal journey. He asks her if she likes how things are going so far. She has a compelling response, but the question is put more directly to the audience.
His point is clear, and Kore-eda eschews any comforting subtleties: We will all be replaced, eventually. It remains up to us to enjoy the sights and sounds, the pleasure and the pain, maybe make things a bit better for those who come after us, and try not to hurt yourself too much along the way.
Life is…transient. Oh so transient. We are all ‘burnable garbage’ in the end. Air Doll is crushingly sad about this reality, enough so that I believe I internalized most of its particulars on that initial viewing long ago. And yet, it is still timely, and universal. Like the best of cinema, it has not aged a day.
Dekanalog is releasing (not re-releasing!) Air Doll commercially in select USA cinemas, and on VOD on February 4, 2022. Visit the official site for more information.
- Hirokazu Koreeda
- Yoshiie Goda
- Hirokazu Koreeda
- Bae Doona
- Arata Iura
- Itsuji Itao