Hirokazu Kore’eda is the most internationally acclaimed Japanese director of his generation, whose films are regularly invited to major world festivals and receive the sort of respectful attention from foreign scholars and critics usually accorded only to dead Golden Age masters.
Starting from his 1995 breakthrough “Maborosi” (“Maboroshi no Hikari”), Kore’eda focused on that core theme of classic humanist cinema: how memory shapes our lives, in both its endurance and absence. In “After Life” (“Wonderful Life,” 1998), his most popular film, the newly dead must select one memory they are permitted to take with them into eternity, a search that becomes a source of joy and anguish.
This theme, explored in film after film, raised his stock as a serious auteur — but it eventually began to feel limiting. In his recent films, including his period drama “Hana” (“Hana Yori mo Naho,” 2006), his family drama “Still Walking” (“Aruitemo Aruitemo,” 2008) and his latest, “Air Doll” (“Kuki Ningyo”), Kore’eda has been exploring a fresh variety of genres and themes, with mixed results.
Screened at the Cannes and Toronto film festivals, “Air Doll” is, despite its story about an inflatable sex doll who comes to life, not pop and certainly not porn. It is instead rather sweet, sad and children’s storybookish, as though Kore’eda had prepped with “The Little Match Girl” and “Pinocchio” rather than Ozu and Bresson. Unfortunately, he doesn’t imitate the commendable brevity of Hans Christian Anderson and Carlo Collodi: “Air Doll” is about twice as long as it needs to be.
That said, it would be hard to imagine a better actress in the title role than Du-na Bae, who was also superb as the naive-but-gutsy Korean exchange student in the Nobuhiro Yamashita school comedy “Linda, Linda, Linda” (2005). Bae manages the character’s transition from lifeless doll to almost-human girl with a sureness and delicacy that is both funny and touching, without descending to the twee. When she is not in the frame, the film deflates into a gray-tinged indie exercise in alienation. When she is present, with those big, staring, watchful eyes, it springs back to life.
Bae is Nozomi, who is owned by Hideo (Itsuji Itao), a pathetic, creepy waiter at a family restaurant. He clothes her, confides in her and, of course, has sex with her. Then one fine morning, she wakes, looks at the big, beautiful world outside and decides she wants to experience it. With hesitant steps, she makes her way through the city, encountering folks as lonely and damaged as Hideo, as well as much that is strange and wonderful, from a child’s touch to the blinking lights of a video-rental shop — and the eyes of a shy, handsome clerk, Junichi (Arata). She gets a job there (which may be a black joke on the many cinematically clueless rental-shop clerks) and soon realizes that the humans around her are as empty inside as she is. Perhaps she is not such an anomaly after all.
The story arc from here would seem to be clear: After the usual reverses, Nozomi becomes a “real girl,” with Junichi at her side. But Kore’eda, who wrote the script based on a manga by Yoshie Goda, takes the film in a darker, more conflicted direction. Being a doll with a heart, Nozomi learns, is an unhappy, half-way state. She wants to go all the way to full humanity, even if it means pain and death. But who can help her? The broken humans all around her? Not likely. Instead, she goes in search of her maker.
Classic children’s stories also venture into the darkness, but they supply a cathartic ending, as does Walt Disney’s animated version of “Pinocchio,” whose final scenes of death and resurrection can still make me cry as reliably as turning on a faucet. By comparison, “Air Doll” is more depressingly realistic — if still simplistic.
It’s tempting to finish here with an easy put-down (“The film runs out of air,” etc.), but “Air Doll,” if not Kore’eda’s best, has a lot in it to admire, from Nozomi’s charmingly baffled explorations to a few original, if subdued, comic bits, such as the way Nozomi achieves her first real orgasm.
Strange at first glance, it makes perfect comic sense — and a larger, if often stated, point: There are different strokes for different folks. And different valves, too.