Air Doll may seem like a bit of an oddity at first, but it quickly transforms into something much more. Instead, it gives the audience an opportunity to witness a master build a world in the playground he has built. Within the confines of two hours, filmmaker Kore-eda Hirokazu achieves what some dedicate a whole career towards even attempting. Seeing its first official U.S. release after launching to critical acclaim in 2009, Air Doll is a complex fairytale that dives into the root of the human condition, and both the joys and struggles that comes with it.
Based off the mythological tale of Galatea and a comic entitled “The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl”, Air Doll revolves around Nozomi, a doll who magically comes to life and learns what it means to be human through experiencing it firsthand. With a creative splash of brilliance littered throughout and a wide array of moments equally beautiful and heartbreaking, Kore-eda emphasizes the duality present in everyday life. Full of gorgeous moments and joyous memories to be made, there is also a darkness that spares no single being. As Kore-eda shows off the wide range of characters he has crafted in a repeated collage, context is completely changed based off Nozomi’s experiences throughout the day. From learning of heartbreak and the pain it causes to the wonderful delight that is discovering new cinema, Nozomi is able to take it all in. And thanks to a bombshell performance from Bae Doona, this “fish out of water” tale becomes something so wholesome and endearing, it’s impossible to not fall under its charming spell.
What this film may be best at is perhaps its complete understanding of the juxtapositions and dualities present in everyday life. From the subtle nods to films of a similar nature (characters working in a video rental store allows for this in such an ode to a passion for cinema) as well as the inclusion of “Life Is”, a gorgeous poem by Yoshino Hiroshi, Kore-eda very willingly acknowledges that life is not confined to one lane or set of emotions. It’s complex, and ever changing, and requires humans to adapt accordingly to our surroundings, whether they be physical, emotional, or mental hurdles. It’s no surprise that the motif of The Little Mermaid is a reoccurring one, as Nozomi continues to try and become part of a new world she was thrust into. This multi-faceted approach to character depth is also present among the characters surrounding our titular character. Struggling with self-image, loneliness, parenting, and more, Kore-eda seems to have left no stone unturned while breaking down the grand journey of life. As Nozomi affects those around her, some more devastatingly than others, a slow shift is begun in the film, and it’s one that is reminiscent of life itself.
As people, we may never know how we have an impact on a life. From an outside perspective, it may seem like nothing. But to those affected, whether subconscious or not, those moments are crucial. And these moments are presented wonderfully in a wholly unexpected way. For there are several moments in Air Doll where it feels like the film could simply end and it would be a fulfilling conclusion. One has to imagine that this is no mere accident, especially in the hands of Kore-eda. Just as life is given to Nozomi seemingly at random, it can be tragically lost in the blink of an eye. Witnessing an accident at one point in the film, we see her new companions breathe life into her by means of a deeply passionate connection. At no point throughout the film does it feel like Kore-eda hasn’t meticulously planned out this larger allegory, built up of smaller moments of reflection and learning.
Upon meeting her creator, a doll maker played by a softly powerful Odagiri Joe, it seems as if Nozomi has made up her mind about life, specifically the pain and suffering it involves. Yet the doll maker has to know if everything she experienced was sad. And this is where the film elevates from great to utter brilliance. Perhaps the most important element of this film is how often it turns its despondent moments into moments of joy or bliss. Tragically heartbreaking scenes make way for something truly special and tear inducing by the end of the film, yet Kore-eda does not lie to his audience by trying to sugarcoat anything. Life is tough, and at any moment we can be cast to the side, either by our own accord or by others. But it’s moments of human connection that make it all worth it. At least, that’s all we can hope for.
Air Doll will be playing in select theaters and available on VOD starting February 4th, 2022.