Air Doll, from writer/director Hirokazu Kore-eda, is a life-affirming yet tragic tale destined to make your heart soar even as it breaks it.
Nozomi (Bae Doona) has just discovered a heart. She gets up one day realizing she is alive. But how can this be? After all, Nozomi is a sex doll. As she wanders around Tokyo with her newly discovered consciousness, Nozomi learns about the pain and beauty of being alive, falls in love, and experiences heartbreak. Writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda (Shoplifters, Still Walking) adapted Yoshiie Gōda’s manga series for Air Doll, imbuing his trademark sensitivity and humanism to this story of personhood and loneliness.
Air Doll, given its subject matter, is easily one of Kore-eda’s most magical films. And what makes it special is that he never gives an explanation for why Nozomi comes to life. It just happens. The refusal to explain itself is one of the film’s joys, as we are left to simply bask in the beauty of the images and the emotional depth of Bae’s performance. Add in the airy, melancholic score by Katsuhiko Maeda and the film reaches profound heights, all by relying more on emotion than logic.
The narrative itself is loosely paced. We follow Nozomi as she wanders Tokyo, studying humans, learning how to speak and how to present herself. Eventually, she finds herself working at a video store, even though she knows nothing about movies. While working at the store, she develops a crush on her coworker, Junichi (Arata Iura). However, Nozomi barely understands the emotions she feels and knows nothing about the world of romance and human connection. To make things even more complicated, she has to return home each night and resume being a sex doll to Hideo (Itsuji Itao), lest he finds out her secret.
There are times over the course of the film where we cut to periphery characters in the world of the film. All of them are lonely people simply trying to live, just like Nozomi. Unfortunately, these side characters ultimately end up feeling superfluous, they rarely add anything to the emotional journey of the film and take away time we could be spending with Nozomi. Thankfully, these cutaways only happen a few times, but shake up the overall smoothness of the film’s pacing enough that it’s noticeable.
Even with some flaws, Air Doll soars, thanks in large part to Bae’s portrayal of Nozomi. To see her discover herself and experience the beauty and cruelty of the world is both life-affirming and heart-breaking. The visuals have a simple elegance to them, thanks to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing (of In the Mood for Love fame). Even while the film tends to lean heavily on sentimentality, Kore-eda approaches the story with enough sensitivity and open-heartedness that the occasional emotional manipulation can be excused. Air Doll succeeds in bringing this odd, tear-jerking story to life through the magnificent collaboration of all these great artists.
Air Doll was released in U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 4, 2022.