‘Air Doll’ a sweetly sexual fairy tale
The sound of inflated plastic shifting under human skin is unusual. It crunches. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Air Doll ’’ means for it to be sweetly, strangely sexual. The movie is a fable etched in comedy, sadness, and mild existential philosophy. Yes, the object of Kore-eda’s fairy tale is a life-size sex toy, but it’s the size and emotional shading of the toy’s new life that interests him.
In a section of a Tokyo neighborhood untouched by urban developers, a middle-age waiter (the comedian Itsuji Itao) returns to his apartment and explains his day to Nozumi, the inflated doll sitting at his dining room table. Nozumi is dressed, rather unimaginatively, in a French chambermaid’s uniform. Her face is frozen in a kind of permanent greeting (How can I help you?). When her master climbs atop her, he’s considerate enough to have removed her clothes, except for the stockings. And the love he makes seems gentle and true — even with the crunch.
One morning, for no apparent reason, Nozumi blinks an eye. She walks to a window, touches a drop of water, sounds out her first word — “Utsu-ku-shii ’’ or “beautiful’’ and turns from a plastic shell into the lovely, daring Korean actress Bae Doona. Her performance begins in exquisite mimicry of strangers on the street. A kimonoed woman, for instance, inspires a choppy run, and there’s a shot of her toiling in a playground sandbox. But Bae eventually allows natural instinct to create a wholly original woman.
On her first afternoon as a human, Nozumi wanders, quite fantastically, into a video store (Cinema Circus!) where she makes expectant eye contact with Junichi (Arata), a dolorous-looking clerk: How can you help me? Indeed, while Nozumi continues to play doll with her unwitting master, Junichi imbues her with human knowledge. He defines what a movie is, tells her about the contents of the sky and the inevitability of aging. He and the jolly store manager (Ryo Iwamatsu) give Nozumi a movie-rental education. Quick: What’s the film based on a Stephen King novel that stars River Phoenix? “Stand by Me,’’ she exclaims.
This is all perfectly cute, and it’s a mark of Kore-eda’s sophistication —he’s adapted Yoshiie Gouda’s 20-page graphic novel “Gouda’s Philosophical Discourse: The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl ’’ — that the film isn’t about the usual sex fantasy. Nozumi’s owner actually seems a little put out that his doll is real. Now it will have needs. But Kore-eda raises the stakes of his fairy tale after a workplace accident leaves Nozumi with a puncture. Inflation proves to have both borderline erotic consequences and blissful side effects. Full of Junichi’s air, she floats around her master’s place and hits the streets of Tokyo (boat rides, a green house). A brief encounter with a statue of a girl elicits a glance of empathy.
For 75 minutes or so, “Air Doll’’ is the lightest of Kore-eda’s movies, which include the superb “Nobody Knows’’ (2004) and “Still Life’’ (2008). Gradually, though, the tender music-box score — by one-man Japanese band world’s end girlfriend — is tinged with foreboding. Nozumi’s ecstatic air achieves gravity, and the hazards of her innocence become tragicomically clear. The allusions made to “Pinocchio,’’ “Frankenstein,’’ “The Little Mermaid,’’ “Splash,’’ and, in one shocking gesture, Nagisa Oshima fall away, and the film manages its own poetic and spiritual heft. Nozumi discovers Kore-eda’s latest lesson on what life is: cruel and utsu-ku-shii.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.