Tuesday, May 4, 2010

「空気人形」 Air Doll: Where is your plug?

Air Doll is Koreeda’s latest film, based loosely on a manga by Yoshie Goda. The film follows an inflatable sex doll’s Pinocchio-esque transformation to life, only to quickly discover the discontents of being human. The film begins by following middle aged Hideo, Itsuji Itao, home from his humdrum job as a waiter at Big Boy to his bachelor pad complete with constellation lighting and Nozomi (Bae Doona), his inflatable partner in small talk and coitus. Soon a change begins to happen within Nozomi: she receives a heart and life, trust me there is no back story to this gift and honestly any back story would be a distraction in the film. Unbeknownst to Hideo, while he is out Nozomi begins wandering about the town coming into contact with various troubled characters and finally finding a job at the local independent movie store. Cue love interest with coworker Junichi (Arata). Nozomi’s character develops along with her relationship with Junichi. At the same time, the parallel between Nozomi and real people becomes more pronounced.

Although the film presents a lot of current ‘social ills’, if you will, in Japan, the message is not unique to Japan or definitively Japanese. The heart of the dilemma that faces Nozomi and her human counterparts is how the Self relates and comes to terms with the Other. In other words, interpersonal relationships and self-image is the core focus of the film. Koreeda’s use of a doll (for the time being looking over the cultural propensity to use dolls as vehicles for stories) to explore the subject is extremely fitting. The owner projects itself on the doll and the doll simply reflects back onto the owner what the owner wants. The one-sided nature of this relationship begins to lose its relevance to dolls alone as the film progresses characterized by the line repeated throughout the film by Nozomi, “I am an air doll, a substitute for handling sexual desire”. Later in the film it becomes apparent that the first clause can simply be dropped. Nozomi’s character has the ability to make pithy insights, similar to the unabashed statements of a child, but with much darker content and themes. As Nozomi wrestles with the blurry line she walks her transformation becomes complete by the end of the film.

Bae Doona, a Korean actress, really is a great pick for this film. There are moments that feel awkward near the beginning, but I doubt the desired emotion was anything but awkwardness. Her expressions, her reactions to situations, and her troubled naivety work well for walking the line between human and doll. Naturally, the fact she is Korean surrounded by a Japanese cast does play to her ‘off’ behavior, but boiling it down to her simple Japanese and the fact everyone in Japan knows she is Korean is over simplistic. Much like in “Linda Linda Linda” Bae Doona’s limited use of Japanese makes her expressions more meaningful. The other casting is pretty standard with some popular actors and comedians tossed in for the commercial draw. Not to downplay their performances, especially Itsuji Itao’s which is a big jump from manzai , but Bae really shines in comparison.

I have read some critics’ flak for the length of the movie and the cavalcade of ancillary characters. I’d say fifty percent of it is warranted. While the different characters reflect some social misfits, eccentrics, and the generally looked-down-upons that does not mean they offer anything besides another layer of the same thing. Cutting out maid-lover boy, borderline hikkikomori girl, and the local oshaberi elderly lady would probably be sufficient. The others have a greater relevance to the main thread of the story and are also believable, not easily written off as extreme cases. No question in my mind about the last dandelion scene. It borders on typical melodrama that is just not represented anywhere else in the film and should have hit the floor.

The cinematography is quite different from the previous Koreeda film I talked about, Maborosi. Most of the film is done with tracking shots of varying lengths and at times switching directions in one take. The result is a more fluid rather than austere looking film like Maborosi. It fits the attitude of the film nicely following the swings of emotion Nozomi faces with her newfound heart. The portrayal of the city in which the story takes place is also very real, with slightly subdued color palettes. Personally, it was fairly nostalgic and true to my experiences living around Osaka (although the story does not take place in Osaka) – down to the storefronts and political posters in the background. Once again, this part of the film deviates greatly from the more manicured and symbolic shots of Maborosi, but is still fitting for Air Doll.     

After my first viewing the movie stayed with me until the next day. It is a sad movie and the sadness is palpable. Despite being a more commercial movie a lot of the scenes and messages are typical of Koreeda’s earlier films. Although some of the craftsmanship differs, I came away from the film surprised with how well Koreeda carried the theme throughout the film and how it ended.

Next up: Nobody Knows.

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