Spotlight on Japan: Air Doll

This is a moment I will certainly remember for a long time. It’s the first time I have been genuinely disappointed by director Hirokazu Koreeda’s work. Air Doll is the latest film by the best living Japanese director who is responsible for contemporary masterpieces like Still Walking and Maboroshi no Hikari – both of which I would consider nearly mandatory for a list of my favorite films. Air Doll had all the ingredients to be yet another masterpiece for the director. Bringing Bae Doona, Itao Itsuji and Jo Odagiri sounds too great and a soundtrack made by one of my favorite Japanese musicians, world’s end girlfriend, is nearly a dream come true. However, the film suffers from its huge ambition.

Bae Doona plays a sex doll who suddenly gets a soul and begins to explore the world around her with innocence and curiosity. Koreeda attempts to turn this premise into an epic exploration of existential confusion and loss of innocence while taking aim at the modern Japanese society – where everyone appears to be shallow. This shallowness is brought forth in every character by the doll who is trying to fill her own emptiness while working at a film rental store and hiding her newfound soul from her “owner”.

While there’s nothing wrong with handling all these themes in inner monologues it never allows Koreeda to explore them thoroughly. The result is a scattershot of themes that are only touched upon and then left alone – which is confusing for the audience. Luckily Koreeda is somewhat aware of this problem and manages to give enough focus for the central metaphor (air doll being the representation of a contemporary human) and knows how to make it relevant. Then there’s another problem with how he breaks the film’s “fairy tale” atmosphere with completely random bits of harshness (such as the way the relationships between the air doll and the rental store clerks end).

Given the subject of the film, it shouldn’t be surprising that this is by far the most erotic film Koreeda has ever made. However, it’s surprising that it’s not perverse in any way and doesn’t completely criticize the culture that allows men to use sex dolls – or even women – as they please. Now that doesn’t mean the film portrays it as acceptable, but rather it ignores that possibility if you don’t count one particularly harsh scene. I guess that is just one of the things that were left without proper exploration thanks to the ambitious amount of different themes Koreeda tries to handle at the same time.

Despite the incoherent themes, the writing is quite sharp in other aspects. Koreeda makes use of strong recurring motifs that gain heavy resonance along the way. I don’t think I have ever seen a film that gives as much symbolic meaning to air. The use of breathing and blowing as a storytelling device is so frequent that it’s nearly ridiculous, but Koreeda somehow manages to make it believable.

The biggest surprise for Koreeda’s fans will be the form that is unlike anything else he has done in the past. He completely leaves the stillness of his earlier films behind himself and chooses instead a restless form. The takes are still relatively long and calm, but the camera is rarely static – it always moves slowly to create a lyrical and floating atmosphere. It’s almost as if the cinematography is as inflated as the main character is. While the editing works very well in individual scenes, the overall rhythm of the film is quite confusing since it is a bit too monotonous. Everything unfolds in the same way – and this is a problem for such a colorful screenplay. The soundtrack is even more brilliant than I expected, but sadly it is slightly overused.

Even if the film is riddled with flaws, there’s one thing everyone should be glad about and that is Bae Doona. Without her performance Koreeda couldn’t have saved this film. It’s her transformation that really packs a punch. I wonder how she manages to perform such a blissfully ignorant and such a tragically self-aware character in the same film. Wisely Koreeda uses CG only where it’s necessary and gives a lot of room for Bae Doona’s own magic.

It’s sad to see Koreeda fail because Air Doll had the potential to become the best movie of the year. However, it’s worth watching at least once and will be an interesting failure for the director’s fans – and it also includes a significant amount of fascinating film references that make Koreeda even more awesome for a film buff.


About Oz
A Finnish film buff who has taken a huge interest in language and Japanese cinema. Can be contacted via email (, Twitter (@OzymandiasJL) and a Private Message on EvaGeeks (Oz).

One Response to Spotlight on Japan: Air Doll

  1. Pingback: “Air Doll” Trailer Review: A Japanese Pinocchio with a Twist of Eroticism | Play the Previews

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: