Air Doll (Kuki Ningyo, Japan 2009)

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Bae Doo-na as Nozomi on her first trip outside

Kore-eda Hirokazu is one of the major directors in contemporary Japanese cinema and Air Doll is an extraordinary film that I thoroughly enjoyed on many levels. With stunning cinematography from Mark Lee Ping-bing (best known for his work with Hou Hsaio-hsien), a captivating score by  ‘World’s End Girlfriend’ (the one-man band of Maeda Katsuhiko) and a fabulous central performance from Bae Doo-na, it’s a surprise that it has taken three years for the film to reach the UK in the form of this release on a Region 2 DVD from Matchbox films. Perhaps it is the subject matter that has been seen as a problem?

Air Doll has been adapted by Kore-eda from a 20-page short manga The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl by Gouda Yoshi. Kore-eda has taken the original narrative concept and explored it in some depth, expanding it significantly. The central character is indeed an ‘air doll’, a blow-up plastic woman who comes to life and begins to investigate the world just outside her door in a district of Tokyo where there are still old low-rise houses, known as shitamachi in Japan. The doll has been bought by Hideo, a waiter in a fast food restaurant who has named her Nozomi. She is his ‘girl-friend substitute’ and each night he bathes her, dresses her and has a meal with her before making love to her in his cramped apartment in which he also indulges his hobby of astronomy. Together, man and doll look up at the stars.

The idea of the doll that comes to life has been around for a long time. Discussion around the film has centred around Pinnochio and Spielberg’s AI as well as the replicants in Blade Runner (the author Philip K. Dick introduces what he calls ‘simulacra’ in many of his stories). In most cases these and similar stories have been developed either as fairy stories for children or as contemporary action stories. Kore-eda has said that he was attracted by the erotic potential of the story and what he has done, at least from my perspective, is to achieve something remarkable in melding a science fiction/fantasy narrative with a romance, a philosophical treatise and a social commentary. (Metropolis with its female robot came to mind and this whole area is one that manga and anime have explored widely.) There is a great deal in this film which I think repays careful viewing. I would love to see the film on a big screen but in a way I think I got a lot from viewing it in several separate chunks on the DVD, allowing me to reflect on where it was going and how the story development was opening up ideas. I’m still not absolutely clear what Kore-eda means by the eroticism inherent in the idea, but the film certainly moved me in many ways. (There is one scene which is remarkably intimate and which does I think open up the erotic.)

In the UK, the DVD has an 18 certificate. I’m not sure why. There is a fair amount of female nudity and some simulated sexual activity – undercut to some extent by the ‘matter of fact’ washing of the doll’s removable vagina – but this all seems less offensive than some of the violence (and sexual violence) allowed in 15 certificate films. The other ‘barrier’ to audience accessibility has been the length according to some critics. The DVD runs for just over 111 minutes which equates to around 116 mins at 24 fps. This appears to be the international cut (the Japanese version is listed as 125 mins). I don’t find the film excessively long, but it is a slow-moving narrative and if audiences concentrate just on the central narrative I can see it might be frustrating.

Kore-eda manages the transition from plastic doll to the live performance by the remarkable Bae Doo-na very well without the aid of visible CGI as far as I could discern. When Nozomi leaves the house (dressed in her maid’s costume, complete with short skirt), she comes across a number of local characters with various problems, an elderly man who was once a ‘substitute teacher’, a woman fearing the loss of her youthful looks, an anorexic, a small girl often on her own when her single parent is working, an older woman who confesses to crimes to gain attention. Each of these characters features in a short vignette about alienation in the city, about consumerism and a throwaway culture. In some ways these might seem like clichéed characters and situations, but they are handled with such skill by Kore-eda and his collaborators that they work in both philosophical and sociological terms. I was reminded of other Japanese films that focus on the ‘alternative world’ of the unemployed and the lonely during the long years of recession in Japan, e.g. Tokyo Sonata by Kurosawa Kiyoshi.

Nozomi eventually finds her way to a video store called ‘Cinema Circus’ and lands herself a job and the possibility of a ‘real’ relationship with the store clerk Junichi, a young man who claims to be ‘like she is’. This relationship provides the romance narrative with familiar generic elements. It also supplies intriguing moments of eroticism and the prospect of an unhappy ending – Nozomi is after all a doll striving to think and ‘feel’ like a human. Meanwhile she has to return to her apartment each evening and pretend to be an inanimate doll again for Hideo – this too must lead to a change since the pretence can only last so long.

I’ve already noted the very high standard of the creative inputs to the film. Bae Doo-na looked familiar to me and later I realised that she had starred in two of my favourite Korean films, The Host (2006) and Take Care of My Cat (2001). She is soon to get a much higher international profile via the Hollywood release of Cloud Atlas (2012). I’ve seen discussion about the casting of Bae and the suggestion that because she is Korean, there is some kind of comment on Japanese treatment of Koreans and in particular a reference back to the exploitation of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Japanese troops in the Second World War. Kore-eda has said that he had been an admirer of Bae’s performances for some time and that she was the only performer he could think of who was capable of filling such a demanding role. The film overall perhaps has less to say directly about the objectification of women than viewers might expect at first glance. I’ve seen one reviewer who suggests that women may be attracted to the emotional content of the film, but also at least one blogger who disliked the film – but who does so only after a careful explanation of why its not for her.

I recommend the film strongly. It’s beautiful, subtle and provocative – as long as you are prepared to engage with it. Kore-eda brings his documentary experience into play in the representation of Tokyo’s lesser-known areas and creates a fantasy which is also very ‘real’. The film may sound like a change of direction but I think it is clearly the work of the same director who made Still Walking (2008). His new film I Wish (Japan 2011) is expected to get a UK release soon, so this DVD sets it up nicely and gives us all the chance to explore the work of a modern master.

Useful web reviews:

Festival Without Borders

Asia Pacific Arts interview with Kore-eda

Here’s the official trailer – I think it gives away/spoils some of the crucial narrative developments, but if you are unsure about the film, it does give a good idea of what it’s like:

The DVD was released by Matchbox Films on 26 November and is available from Amazon.

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