“Was everything you saw in this world sad? Was there something, anything, what was beautiful?” the heroine of Hirokazu Koreeda’s exploration of urban loneliness Air Doll (空気人形, Kuki Ningyo) is asked by her creator though he can offer her few answers for the strange mystery of her life. Like a child, she takes beauty where she finds it yet much of what she sees is indeed sad as she reflects on the disconnected lives around her, the emptiness and futility of life in the contemporary society where everything is just a substitute for something else which cannot be obtained.
As for herself, she is quite literally empty inside, an inflatable sex doll owned by middle-aged family restaurant waiter Hideo (Itsuji Itao) who has given her the name of his ex, Nozomi (Bae Doona), which ironically means hope, wish, or desire though not generally of the sexual kind. Yet one day she suddenly wakes up and begins to explore the world rejoicing in its new sensations feeling the rain on her hands and the wind that sounds the chimes as she watches her neighbours go about their daily routine. Dressed in the French maid’s outfit picked out for her by Hideo she gets a job at a local video store and begins living a more independent life while learning how to operate in human society. She feels herself out of place but is repeatedly told that there are others like her, mistaking her literal emptiness for their spiritual despair.
Yet that sense of emptiness and futility is evident from Nozomi’s first forays into the human world in that the first act of mundanity she witnesses is the bin men sorting rubbish for disposal. “Unfortunately they’re non-burnable” Nozomi’s creator explains when she visits him in search of answers revealing he throws out the broken dolls that are returned to him once a year, “after all, once we die we’re burnable garbage. It’s not such a big difference” he adds, though as it turns out it is quite a big difference to Nozomi in ramming home to her that she can never become human and will always be something else, an inorganic “substitute” for something perceived as the “real”.
“Your only flaw is that your body’s so cold” Hideo ironically laments as he warms her up in the bath, something she is told repeatedly to remind her that though she has discovered a heart it does not beat and she is not “alive”. Yet an old man (Masaya Takahashi) seeking a different kind of comfort later remarks that those with cold hands often have warm hearts as he reflects on his own life as a “substitute” teacher while she looks over the pictures of the many dogs he’s had through the course of his life as substitutes for the traditional family that have only left him feeling lonelier through their inevitable absences. There is perhaps in this a slightly conservative and uncomfortable implication that the loneliness we see in everybody that we meet is partly caused by the decline of the traditional family itself partly a consequence of the shifting gender roles of the later 20th century society. When they first meet, Nozomi has been rejected by a group of local mothers for inappropriately cooing over a baby in a pushchair the old man comforting her with a tale of the mayfly which is itself empty inside existing only to give birth and then die its own life defined by futility. Nozomi can never truly be human, but more than that she can never truly be a woman because she cannot reproduce as signalled in her final exchange with a little girl in her neighbourhood who swaps her beaten up and broken doll, a substitute for her absent mother now symbolic daughter to Nozomi, in exchange for her ring, a symbol of adulthood.
In this way Nozomi becomes herself a symbol of something that is broken, an active barrier to societal happiness in providing a way for men like Hideo to escape the responsibility of the traditional family by satisfying his sexual desire through a fantasy of intimacy with an inanimate substitute. When Nozomi throws her pump away, Hideo buys a new model and when she confronts him he asks her to go back to being a passive doll because he finds all the human stuff “annoying” and only wants a woman who can be a selfless embodiment of his desires, will never talk back, challenge him, or hurt his feelings. Meanwhile, when her boss at the store (Ryo Iwamatsu) who seems have experienced a recent familial breakdown of his own blackmails her into having sex with him in the bathroom he is conversely annoyed by her passivity while tearfully calling out his wife’s name. Even her innocent love for coworker Junichi (Arata Iura) has its darkness, not only does she suspect she’s merely a substitute for his ex, his fetishisation of her revolves around his ability to take control over life by letting out her air and then permitting her to live by blowing his own back into her.
“I am an air doll. A substitute for sexual desire” is how she introduces herself, preoccupied with her literal emptiness yet along with a heart discovering a sense of self as she interacts with others, beginning to wear her own clothes rather than those purchased for her by Hideo. At a moment of crisis she is surrounded by all the treasures she’s collected which ironically include a number of ornaments intended for a doll’s house including a tiny simulacrum of a cake which reappears in her imaginary birthday party suggesting that the only true happiness is to be found in wishful fantasy while the “real” will only ever disappoint. Nevertheless, she uses her last breath to bring happiness to all she can, uniting the old man with a lonely old woman (Sumiko Fuji) who confesses to random crimes just to have someone to talk to. Shot with unusual fluidity by Mark Lee Ping-Bing, Koreeda captures a society in flux in which the easy convenience of disposable consumerism has begun to replace human relationships and left us all empty inside.
Air Doll in in US cinemas and on VOD Feb. 4 courtesy of Dekanalog
Trailer (English subtitles)