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People with cold hands have warm hearts (Air Doll review)

Two years is a long time.

Just two years ago, I’d seen very few Japanese live-action films, only to eventually realise that my interest in anime was linked to a broader fascination with the whole spectrum of Japanese art; what I get from anime, I hear in Japanese music and see in Japanese film, too. This runs deep for me and I can’t explain why, but anyway, since that point, I’ve seen dozens of Japanese films; I have favourite directors and keep finding new music (the latest being World’s End Girlfriend).

Every new film is just the tip of another ice-berg, revealing only further depths of art and beauty. One of my biggest regrets about this blog is that I haven’t documented this journey into live-action nearly well enough, so, I’m sorry about that, guys, but this post, I hope, will at least go some ways to making amends, because last night I watched Air Doll and just had to write something.

Released in 2009, it’s the (fairy) story of a life-like female sex doll, Nozomi, that, one grey morning, springs into life and stumbles out wide-eyed into the world for the first time.

From the way she walks to her curious interactions with the world, there’s a delightful sense of wonder and naivety to her first steps, offset by the weary people around her. Given its strange subject matter, I think it’s important to note the terminal sadness at the core of the film, but it’s just as important to emphasize the beauty, too. The real, flesh-and-blood people in Air Doll are sad creatures, aching to be loved, yet to see them and the city through Nozomi’s eyes is as poetic as it is tragic.

Barely 10 minutes in, Nozomi’s owner is having sex with her. At this point, she’s still just a lifeless doll, but, for whatever reason, I didn’t find the sex itself as disturbing as seeing the guy (after he’s ‘done’) removing the doll’s plastic vagina and washing it out with soap; the reality of what he’s doing is what’s so terrifying, because, the saddest thing is, people really live like this; he’s walking around his small apartment talking to her about his day as if she were his real, loving wife.

Later on, the owner asks if Nozomi can go back to being just a doll, as if having to deal with a real woman, to consider her feelings, is too much. The point is, people just use Nozomi, the Air Doll, as a substitute for what’s missing from their lives. None of them are willing to consider her feelings. Her love is misplaced and confused, but I shouldn’t dwell on that anymore.

As it draws to a close, Nozomi meets her maker. He asks “Was there something, anything, that was beautiful?” She replies with a nod. The sense of melancholy in this moment is the dichotomy at the heart of Air Doll; that a film as ostensibly grim can feel so warm at the same time is symbolic of just how bitter-sweet and fragile a person’s life is.

Comments

Ivy says:

Interesting.
My biggest issue with Live-action Films/dramas is how jaded and processed the acting and writing is. They move at a glacial pace and keeping on mumbling irrelevant gibberish. Doesn’t help that they seem to be getting inspiration from anime. All them anime—->drama adaptations are painful to watch. They way they speak, their contorted facial expressions when in anger, their overly-dramatic gasps and their insistence on using the call out someones name, followed by awkward silence. It was all fun and exciting at first, being new to drama and such, but it gets awfully tiring and grating real quick.
My stance may seem like I don’t enjoy the occasional Japanese live-action, but its not like that. I’ve recently enjoyed JIN (fantastic show). Last friend and Orange days are lovely stories, even if they keep on middling into anime cliches, its not as bad as other shows and its kept in check.
Air Doll seems to be the definition of everything I hate about Japanese Live action, I’ll give it a try though! Since you seem to have enjoyed it so much. I hope its as poetic as you say.

bateszi says:

Yeah, it’s worth a try :)

TV drama is different to the kind of movies I’m talking about. I know exactly what to mean– the live action Nodame Cantabile comes to mind, the acting is very, as you say, ‘processed.’ A film like Air Doll is different, or at least, I hope you think it is. The sheer amount of nudity should suggest as much. Anyway, I think TV drama will always be censored/pandering to a certain demographic, while film (especially the more indie efforts, like this) has more artistic intentions.

okiru says:

I’ll have to put this on the list.

Sorry to have not frequented you blog much. Wife and I had a baby and now there’s not much time. Keep up your blog! It’s a great way for me to live vicariously.

As far as Japanese movies go, Afterlife is one of my favorites. As is Tampopo.

And I think I already mentioned that I think you’d like 3-Iron (Korean).

bateszi says:

No problem, okiru. It’s nice to hear from you every now and then, and you’ve now got a baby, too? Time sure flies, eh?! Have you seen Departures? It won an Oscar in 2009 for Best Foreign Film and I’m probably going to watch it tonight, looks good :)

I watched 3-Iron a year or so back, and you’re right, I really liked it, in fact, so much so, that I ended up checking out some of the director’s other films and the one I’d really recommend to you (that is, if you haven’t already seen it) is “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring”.

okiru says:

Departures is on my list. Just haven’t had time. It looks really good. My wife and I play cello so the movie looks extra enticing. Oh, and thanks for putting “Spring…” back on my radar. I’d thought about watching it some time ago but never got around to it. So glad you liked 3-Iron. Have you seen “Save the Green Planet” (another Korean movie)?

bateszi says:

Nope, I haven’t seen that one, but just added it to my list, thanks!

Talking of Koreans, if you haven’t seen his films already, I have to recommend the Korean director Joon-ho Bong. For me, the guy is genius: his most famous film is ‘Host’, but ‘Memories of Murder’ and ‘Mother’ are frankly brilliant splices of mystery/thrillers/warm dramas worthy of someone like Naoki Urasawa. He only released ‘Mother’ last year, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.

okiru says:

STGP is dark and uncomfortable, but the pay-off is worth it. Thanks for the other movie tips. I’ll be sure to check those out.

itsubun says:

Thank you for doing me the service of recommending yet another wonderful film. And major props for touching on the feminist issues being dealt with in the relationship between the man and the doll-turned-real-girl. Your writing is still subtly sensitive and superbly descriptive.

I have Hirokazu Koreeda’s Distance on my shelf, really should get around to it.

bateszi says:

Thanks for saying so, itsubun; it’s lovely to hear from you again, and just in time for another Masaaki Yuasa anime, too! :)

Anyway, Air Doll is a film with very strong feminist themes for sure: one point I hadn’t even picked-up on until I read another review is that the story could even be seen as an allegory for prostitution. However you look at it, there’s a very clear sense that Nozomi is being exploited, her own feelings ignored.

Ivy says:

Wow what a fantastic movie, I’m so glad I gave it a chance. Theres a sense of wonder and discovery in this movie that I haven’t seen in a while. What a fresh change having the protagonist knowing so very little, really pulls you in once consequences start to pile up as we’ve seen her from the moment shes opened her eyes. Of course I have to give credit to Bae Doo Na for her performance as Nozomi. Theres a certain quality to her movement and facial expressions thats are so whimsical and endearing you can’t help but be sucked in by her charm. She might not speak much, but her large expressive eyes speak volumes. The thought that there probably are dozens of movies of this caliber out there boggles my mind in excitement! Any recommendations?

bateszi says:

Great to hear that you liked it, Ivy, and thanks for showing the faith :)

Since you liked Bae Doo Na, I’d really recommend you have a look at Linda Linda Linda, which is a similarly melancholic film about friendship and music in Japanese high school (more uplifting, though). Bae Doo Na is the band’s vocalist. This is the film that got me started on digging into the depths of Japanese cinema.

‘Adrift in Tokyo’ and ‘The Taste of Tea’ are others that delight in silence and contemplation.

otacon says:

Just finished the movie and wanted to thank you for this wonderful recommendation. There aren’t many movies of this quality out there, and I actually found myself not wanting this one to end at all. Originally I stumbled upon your blog while looking for something on Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but I have to say I’m glad I didn’t stop there. I love it when directors dare to dig so deep into otherwise neglected topics that apparently concern so many people of our day and age, but are often frowned upon and not compatible with the mass market. I will definitely check out some of your other recommendations as well.

bateszi says:

Thanks for commenting, otacon. It’s always a boost to hear from people who have taken up my recommendations and I’m glad you enjoyed the film!

If you haven’t seen it already, you should look into Hirokazu Koreeda’s earlier film (director of Air Doll,) Afterlife. It’s yet another highly allegorical, slow and interesting film. Highly recommended!

otacon says:

Just wanted to give some feedback now that I’ve watched some of your recommendations:

Most enjoyable for me were Adrift in Tokyo and Linda Linda Linda. Both a bit melancholic, but with funny and memorable scenes in-between. All About Lily Chou-Chou I did know before and have been a huge fan of now for a long time. I’m indifferent yet as to what to think of After Life, because at first I thought that the idea Koreeda employed was really intriguing (and it kept me thinking afterwards). Yet I feel they could have done more with it. I imagined the scenes to be more beautiful than the scenes we saw re-enacted. The re-enactment seemed somehow wrong, because it wasn’t the true thing. One of the movies I’ll probably have to watch again. That aside, I didn’t get the hang of The Taste of Tea. To me it seemed as if the director didn’t know what he wanted to tell and tried to pile up absurdities instead of telling a proper story. A thing that may sometimes succeed, but not in this case.

Out of other movies I watched recently, seeing that you already watched Battle Royale, I’d only like to recommend to you Go by Isao Yukisada. If you’re open for other Asian movies as well, 13 Beloved might not be such a bad choice. Oldboy you probably already know.

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