Air Doll

Movie review: 'Air Doll' slowly loses steam

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 18, 2010

A Japanese love story about a guy and his inflatable girlfriend, "Air Doll" sounds like a remake of the 2007 art-house hit "Lars and the Real Girl." In truth, it's more like "The Velveteen Rabbit" or "Pinocchio," at least in theme. Here, the blow-up sex doll of the title turns into a real woman.

The message -- that being loved is what makes us human -- is actually kind of sweet. The delivery of that message (by writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, based on a manga comic book by Yoshiie Goda) is as ponderous as it is disturbing. Filled with joyless sex, peppered with dark and pretentious lines including "Life contains its own absence" and culminating in an act of bizarre, bloody violence, it turns out to be a meandering philosophical treatise on the nature of existence, a smutty meditation on René Descartes -- I shag therefore I am -- with a splash of J-horror.

At the start of "Air Doll," the titular heroine, called Nozomi, is just an ordinary sex toy. Dressed in her French maid outfit, she sits in silence at the dinner table while her owner, sad-sack waiter Hideo (Itsuji Itao), makes small talk before bedding down with her. One morning after he leaves for work, however, Nozomi, now played by Korean actress Du-na Bae ("The Host"), wakes up to find that she has become flesh and blood. "I found myself with a heart," she says. "A heart I was not supposed to have."

Well, not exactly.

She still has seams, and a plug where her belly button should be. And when the sun shines on her, her shadow is less than completely solid, like a balloon's. But in almost every other respect, she's a walking, talking woman. She certainly looks real (except for her lifelike, medical-grade silicone genitalia, which has the advantage of being removable for ease of washing). With her saucerlike eyes and tottering gait, Bae is every inch a living doll.

Nozomi strolls around town, eventually landing a job at a video rental store, where she becomes friendly with Junichi (Arata), a co-worker who doesn't seemed fazed when the new employee springs a leak that has to be repaired with cellophane tape. Junichi then reinflates her by mouth, in the film's one sex scene that is actually, you know, sexy.

Junichi squires her to restaurants and to the beach, managing not to barf at her saccharine wonder at the mystery of birthdays, dandelions, the sky and the ocean. Nozomi, it seems, may have found herself with a heart, but like the scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," she doesn't seem to have much of a brain.

No matter. Junichi doesn't have much of one, either. You might start to wonder whether he's a mannequin, too.

There are moments of real visual poetry. And the philosophy is certainly thought-provoking. Is it consciousness that makes us human? Or the consciousness of others? And don't we all end up in the ground anyway, people and sex dolls alike? Among the many mortality-themed subplots is Nozomi's tender friendship with a sickly old man.

But at almost two hours, "Air Doll" feels waaay too long. It's a thin, sophomoric premise that in the end falls flat, and the only sound is the hiss of escaping hot air.

* 1/2 Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains nudity, sexual content and brief, bloody violence. In Japanese with English subtitles. 116 minutes.

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