Beau-ti-ful: Air Doll (2009)

Air Doll is a film destined to be something I thoroughly enjoy.  First, it was directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, whose film Still Walking received a more than favorable review and heavy admiration for its clear admiration for the late Ozu.  Secondly, the film focuses on issues of body and gender as it relates to East Asian cinema, a personal and well-vested research interest of mine.  Finally, if those two things were not enough, the film also includes the amazing Doona Bae, whose performance in Cloud Atlas was among one of the many enjoyable portions of the film.  Of course, a set of favorable things in my favor does not necessarily mean that it will equate to a good movie for other people every time, however, in the case of Air Doll, I think its cinematic leanings, Westernized cultural references and somewhat melodramatic soundtrack lend well to most film palettes, not to mention it involves artificial intelligence, allowing for even the most strict of sci-fi enthusiasts to find something to love in the film.  While the critics who claim the film to be a bit lengthy in its execution certainly have a right to do so, I cannot help but defend its drawn out nature as a necessity in regards to Koreeda's clear desire to promote the issues of human suffering and loneliness as realized through a being whose just come to terms with their own realization that they have emotions.  Hell, I would go so far as to describe Air Doll as a work influenced heavily by the ideas and writings of Albert Camus, although if said ideas were to be incorporated in to a Phillip K. Dick world.  Rarely do I ever possess a desire to go out of my way to read manga, although I probably should begin considering it since it does have ties to my research intestates, I really cannot deny my desire to read the graphic text on which Air Doll was based, because it is such a decidedly philosophical film that I cannot help but consider the ways in which the novel either intensifies or overlooks these reflections.  With is existential woes and considerable understanding of generational issues within contemporary Japanese culture, both in this film and Still Walking, I have began to actively seek out this directors other works as I can only hope they are filled with and equal degree of vigor and poetic earnestness.

Air Doll begins with the introduction of Hideo (Itsuji Itao) a middle-aged man working in a clearly draining and financially unrewarding job, taking solace only in his ability to come home and enjoy intercourse with a blow-up sex doll named Nozomi (Doona Bae), leaving the next day to return to his job of under-appreciation.  It is during his leave from the home that Nozomi begins to come to life as an almost spectral essence, one with a human form, but an opaque shadow.  Having only the realization that she has a heart, Nozomi attempts to navigate the world of urban Japan mimicking the actions of those she sees around her, whether it be an older woman bowing around various businesses or a girl singing a children's song.  Nozomi's curiosity with the world around her is so real and engaging that she actually finds herself successfully landing a job in a video rental store, all within the time frame of her owner being at work, thus being completely oblivious to her changed form.  As the days grow and Nozomi learns better how to navigate the world she is able to express emotions and intelligent conversations to the world around her, whether it be an old man reading poetry at a park bench, or with Junichi (Arata) whom she begins a relationship with, one which allows her to experience young love as well as continuing her curiosity with the world around her, taking particular notice of a young girl being sang "Happy Birthday."  Yet when she falls during work and accidentally punctures herself, it is revealed to Junichi that she is an air doll, something he reacts to by willingly filling her back up with air, in a noticeably sexual manner.  After this accident, Nozomi becomes considerably connected with the lonely individuals around urban Japan, sharing their sadness, as well as coming to terms with Hideo's own loneliness.  She eventually seeks to end her life by releasing her air, after talking with another woman and claiming that she did briefly find happiness in her moments of emotion.  Although it is implied that her sacrifice is witnessed by another woman who draws on its serenity to change their own life and seek out moments of beauty for herself.

Air Doll could be read as many things, an existential reflection on modernity and loneliness, a warning for our seeming willingness to attach emotional outpourings to artificial intelligence, or even a demand of its viewers to appreciate fleeting moments of beauty in a world of continued tragedy.  These are all very real themes within the film and certainly worth intense expansion, however, I cannot help but consider the feminist awakening considered within Koreeda's film, whether accidental or on purpose.  At the films onset, Nozomi is a body objectified, an issue faced by women for centuries, and still problematically confronted today, it is not until she realizes that she is capable of being a emotive and rational being that can seek her own desires that she comes to life.  This life could be read as a socio/political/economic awakening as a metaphor for women in contemporary East Asian cultures where they are still objectified within traditionalism.  As such, it is no accident that she seeks employment at a video store that draws heavily from Western culture, a means of inspiration on a very large level for non-Western feminist rhetoric, although they are beginning to create their own feminist voices and identities completely influenced by non-Western histories and philosophies.  Nonetheless, Nozomi's awakening allows her to move out of the domestic space and create her own sexuality, one that is awakened when she is "blown back up" by Junichi which could easily be read as Nozomi having her first orgasm and realizing that she too is capable of sexual gratification.  In regards to sexuality, it is no accident that the tube to represent Nozomi's vagina is constantly being cleaned both by herself and by Hideo, showing a far larger concern for the female sexual body than medicine tends to do so even in contemporary heath and body discourses.  Finally, her death at the end of the film suggests a feminist martyrdom, no different than Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc, one that pushes another woman to seek beauty outside of a domestic space, a veritable call to action which will hopefully open the eyes of a handful of other oppressed persons as well.

Key Scene:  There is a scene where humanized Nozomi is pretending to be a doll while Hideo lays beside her and watches TV, in which Doona Bae delivers the robotic movements of a doll, while also expressing a look of entrapment that is acting beyond perfection.

This pseudo-adaptation of The Little Mermaid is a must-own piece of cinema, and while it is a bit pricey the DVD transfer is gorgeous.

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