When I was playing Little League baseball in Barberton, Ohio, I would often pass by a run-down red-brick building on the way home from practice. Once, I peered inside an open door and saw workers making risque rubber goods, including water bottles with the face and naked figure of Marilyn Monroe (or rather a woman I imagined to be her). Noticing me gazing wide-eyed at the scene, the workers grinned conspiratorially and I scampered away.

Watching Yuki Tanada’s “Romance Doll,” which unfolds in a similar sex toy workshop, albeit one more technically advanced, I flashed back on this childhood glimpse of a hidden world. Based on Tanada’s own novel, the film gets laughs from its setting, while keeping its comedy sympathetic and droll rather than jokey and strident.

Also, when the story takes a serious turn, the transition is grounded in real-life observation, not lazy stereotype. And when it enters the fraught territory of medical catastrophe, it never jerks tears, though it earns them. Finally, in turning its hero into a Henry Higgins figure laboring over an inanimate Eliza Doolittle the film could have descended to the ridiculous, but instead becomes moving, haunting and inspiring. I won’t say why.

Romance Doll (Romansu Doru)
Run Time 123 mins.
Opens JAN. 24

Our hero is Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi), a shy graduate who takes a job as a designer at the workshop strictly for the money. Before long, however, he becomes swept up in the ambition of his jittery, middle-aged senior, nicknamed Kin-kin (Yasuhiro Koseki, better known as Kitaro), to make the ultimate sex doll. But Tetsuo’s first attempt is greeted with scorn by the burly workshop boss (Pierre Taki). “This is rubbish — her boobs aren’t real,” he says, feeling up Tetsuo’s creation. Then Kin-kin has a brainstorm: Make a mold from the breasts of a real woman.

Enter Sonoko (Yu Aoi), who takes the mold-model job because she mistakenly assumes the workshop is making prosthetic breasts. She innocently believes she will be helping other women by offering her own to Tetsuo’s ministrations.

He doesn’t disabuse her, even after they fall in love and marry — and even after the doll modeled on Sonoko becomes a bestseller, plunging Tetsuo into frenzy of work that lasts four years.

Meanwhile, progress keeps advancing and a new material, elastomer, threatens the dominance of Tetsuo’s favored silicone. More significantly, certain truths emerge that push Tetsuo and Sonoko to the verge of a breakup.

This may sound too heavy going for a movie about a guy whose goal in life is make better masturbation aids, but Tanada, who wrote the script, uses her offbeat premise to examine fundamental human issues with insights sharp and compassionate, specific and poetic.

In the end, Tetsuo and Kin-kin are craftsmen in a long, proud Japanese tradition, though in the local cultural hierarchy they rank near the bottom. And the folks at the workshop are good-hearted, salt-of-the-earth types, though the film acknowledges that they are not all upstanding citizens and flawless role models.

Kin-kin and the boss, I learned, are brothers in spirit to those workers at that long-ago Ohio rubber goods plant. But in “Romance Doll” fine Japanese workmanship wins out, as it should, even if the workmen will never get an invitation to an imperial garden party.

Read Mark Schilling’s interview with “Romance Doll” director Yuki Tanada.

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