Yuki Tanada is not easy to categorize, having undertaken the roles of actress, scriptwriter, novelist and director since winning the Pia Film Festival grand prize for her 2001 debut film, “Moru.” And, while her films may examine issues of identity, sexuality and mortality with honesty and insight, they also supply laughs with a dry sense of humor.

I meet Tanada to interview her about her latest film, “Romance Doll,” at Shinjuku Wald 9 cinema in Tokyo, where she has just introduced a sneak preview screening.

We have met several times before, including at the Udine Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, for which I had programmed her films “One Million Yen Girl” (2008) and “Round Trip Heart” (2015).

For this year’s edition, the festival also plans to invite “Romance Doll,” Tanada’s comic drama about an earnest sex doll designer (Issey Takahashi) who marries his one-time “breast model” (Yu Aoi), but lies to her about his profession. By turns funny, tragic and improbably uplifting, the film was scripted by Tanada from her own novel of the same name.

I first question Tanada about the film’s title. The male protagonist designs what are essentially sex dolls, but which are called “love dolls” in Japanese. Where does the “romance” come in?

“Japanese and native speakers use English differently,” Tanada says. “The ‘love’ in ‘love doll’ just refers to ‘making love’ or sex. But for Japanese people, ‘romance’ can mean various things.”

Tanada had a long time to ponder what those “various things” are: She published the novel more than 10 years ago. The story is even older.

“Before I made the film ‘Moon and Cherry’ in 2004, I came up with two plots,” she says. “One became ‘Romance Doll.’ But I decided to make ‘Moon and Cherry’ first and set the ‘Romance Doll’ story aside. Later I was asked to write a novel. I thought it would be interesting to put the ‘Romance Doll’ story into novel form. I wasn’t thinking to make a movie out of it right away.”

Tanada says there was another reason “Romance Doll” took so long to film.

“Back in 2008 or 2009, not many people knew what ‘love dolls’ were,” she says, “and I couldn’t think of many people who would be good as actors (in a film version of ‘Romance Doll’).”

Then, in 2017, well-known Japanese sex doll maker Orient Industry held an exhibition of its products at a gallery in Tokyo.

“There was a long line,” Tanada says. “A lot of people wanted to see those dolls, and more than half of them were women. I realized that times had completely changed since I wrote the novel and I thought I could now make a movie.”

Fortunately, Orient Industry cooperated with Tanada’s long-delayed project. “They’re nice people,” she says. “When I wrote the novel they weren’t very helpful, though. Just men buy those dolls, not someone like me. So they didn’t open up to me at all. But when I made the movie they were really cooperative.”

From start to finish: Yuki Tanada took her own novel and adapted it for the big screen to create 'Romance Doll.' © 2019 'Romance Doll' Film Partners
From start to finish: Yuki Tanada took her own novel and adapted it for the big screen to create ‘Romance Doll.’ © 2019 ‘Romance Doll’ Film Partners

For the novel, she admits, “I used my imagination a lot” but for the film, she adds, “Orient Industry gave me a proper education in what it does, and the film is based on that.”

Her main character, Tetsuo, doesn’t find the job of sex doll designing appealing at first, however he soon warms to it.

“He takes it because he has no money,” Tanada says. “But while he is doing it, he realizes how interesting doll-making is.”

This learning process leads to laughs, as when Tetsuo’s first creation gets rejected by the brusque company president (Pierre Taki) for her rubbery breasts.

“I wasn’t thinking of making a comedy,” Tanada says. “When bad goes to worse it’s to easier to deal with it if you can laugh, so I wanted laughs in the film. But laughter is just one element in life, and that goes for sex, too. More than anything, I wanted to make a drama about how human beings live.”

I tell Tanada that Tetsuo’s quest to make the perfect doll reminds me of the Pygmalion story from Greek mythology, in which the titular character falls in love with a statue he has created.

“Dolls have existed since ancient times in Japan. They are said to have souls. When the wife or child of a lord died he would have a doll made,” she says. “Back in the 1970s, Orient Industry had a doll it called ‘Omokage,’ or ‘Simulacrum.’ It appears briefly in the movie. That doll was said to be modeled on the wife of a client. Orient Industry has made other dolls modeled on dead people. Japan has had a culture of a dolls based on real people for a long time.”

Another element of the film that has ancient Greek echoes is its mixing of Eros and Thanatos, the gods of love and death, respectively. Not to give anything away, but death threatens to destroy Tetsuo’s happiness — and he resists it with the power of love, both physical and spiritual.

“How can Tetsuo continue to live?” Tanada asks rhetorically. “How can he accept death so that he can live? He finds that the act of love is essential for accepting death.”

I ask Tanada if she thinks humans will soon seek love and sex with robots instead of dolls.

“I have a feeling that may happen,” she says, “but the people at Orient Industry find value in making dolls that are not robots and don’t speak. As long as its current president is alive, Orient Industry will not make robots.”

Tanada thinks the status quo in the sex doll world will not last forever.

“Dolls are cold, but more and more people will want something that’s at body temperature,” she says. “But what will happen then? I’m scared to find out. With dolls that don’t talk, there is communication between the doll and its owner, but the owner also has a separate kind of communication with humans. If that same person can buy a robot that fulfills all his needs, communication with other humans becomes unnecessary. And that may be dangerous. And scary.”

“Romance Doll” will be screened in cinemas nationwide from Jan. 24. For more information, visit romancedoll.jp.

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