Air Doll (Japan, 2009)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Air Doll is the third film I have seen in the past four years about a sex doll (following the low-budget horror movie Love Object and the considerably more sophisticated Lars and the Real Girl), and it's easily the most sublime of the three. I have heard it compared to Splash (although Mannequin might be more appropriate), but such a comparison does Air Doll a great disservice. This is not a conventional movie in any sense - it's about the fleeting nature of life, and what a fragile and ephemeral thing "existence" is. Can anyone say that about Splash?

Obviously, Air Doll is an allegory. The narrative is thin and doesn't stand up to any sort of scrutiny. You have to buy into the premise and go with the flow. It's a fantasy and all the laws of logic have been set aside. The plot is simple enough: a sex doll comes to life one day through some unexplained magic. She roams the street and, like a newborn, sees the world through the eyes of an innocent. Thereafter, she spends her days working at a video store (where she falls in love with a co-worker) and her nights returning to her "home," where she continues to provide the expected services for her owner (who doesn't realize she has come to life) until he buys another doll and puts her away.

Although director Hirokazu Kore-eda never shies from depicting the true function of the air doll (she is, after all, a sex toy and to pretend otherwise would be disingenuous), he keeps the film well above a sleaze threshold. Air Doll is an ethereal movie, focusing on the childlike wonder with which the doll approaches the world and her attempts to discover what it means to be alive and what her purpose is now that her body in animated. Her naivete is highlighted during the movie's closing moments when she makes a critical mistake and recognizes that an unavoidable element of living is dying.

Mention must be made of the performance of Doona Bae, who plays the air doll. The way in which she captures the tentative awkwardness of the newly "born" woman is fascinating and (of all things) recalls Pinocchio. Bae's mannerisms allow us to accept her as an animated version of the doll. It's easy for a portrayal like this to be overlooked, but this is one of the most evocative samples of acting I have seen recently, and it goes a long way toward making the movie work. Kore-eda has received some criticism for selecting this material (which is based on a graphic novel) as his follow-up to the sublime Still Walking, but one can see how its themes have intrigued him and the way in which they are developed recalls his earlier work.

Air Doll (Japan, 2009)

Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nudity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: In Japanese with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1