It sucks to be unpopular.
Sure, I’d like to believe that having an unpopular opinion could make me edgy and interesting and could provoke some stimulating discussion, but sometimes I just like to agree. And when it comes to movies–especially arthouse movies–hating a movie that everyone else seemed to love can put you in an uncomfortable position.
So I’m going to cheat a bit in my review of Air Doll and talk about it from two perspectives–the academic / interpretative perspective and the movie-as-a-movie perspective. The good news is that there are a lot of positive things to say about the former. Air Doll is a complicated movie. It was written and directed by Koreeda Hirokazu, mostly known for thoughtful, beautifully shot, Ozu-esque films like Maboroshi no hikari, Nobody Knows, and Afterlife. At its most basic level, it’s the story of an inflatable sex doll who one day discovers that she has a “heart,” wanders out of the apartment where her owner keeps her, and gradually develops a life of her own. Beyond its basic premise, though, the film raises a lot of prickly questions. I was lucky enough that the screening I attended was followed by a Q&A with three film professors, who delved into some readings that I hadn’t really considered. It isn’t anywhere near a coincidence, they argue, that Koreeda cast a famous Korean actress (Bae Doona of The Host) in the role of the sex doll. Are we to read the film as an allegory of Japanese colonialism (particularly the controversial subject of Korean “comfort women”)? What does it mean that Koreeda casts a Korean actress but never directly addresses the issues that her casting brings up? A friend argued that the film is inherently “readable,” allowing both the spectator and various characters to see what they want to see. I wondered about its twisting of the doll /robot that comes to life motif–in stories like Pinocchio or Galatea or even A.I., the supporting characters are generally thrilled when their inanimate creations take on life. In Air Doll, though, a sex doll come to life is its owner’s (and every sex doll- or pillow girlfriend-loving otaku‘s) worst nightmare–they prefer the sex doll precisely BECAUSE she’s inanimate. When the air doll finally confronts her owner he begs her to go back to being a doll, saying that her sentience is “annoying.”
Plenty of other interesting points came up in the Q&A–the issue of class and the rise of temp workers (the doll is often referred to as a “substitute”), the question of how to define “Japanese” and other national cinemas in a time when so many filmmakers are bridging national boundaries. The film provoked a lot of productive conversation.
I hated it, though.
Maybe it was the fact that I’m getting weary of the fascination with sex dolls, pillow girlfriends, and the guy who “married” his computer-generated girlfriend, stories that Western media can’t seem to get enough of (and that so frequently characterize Japanese men as hopelessly introverted sex maniacs). Maybe it was the fact that I’ve always admired Koreeda for his long silences and the authenticity of his writing, and Air Doll was full of hackneyed dialogue and what I found to be an utterly unoriginal story line. Maybe it was just the constant sight of a petite, doll-like woman filmed a) naked, b) flitting around like a bird, or c) staring wide-eyed at the men around her and telling them that it was her job to please them. Whatever it was, Air Doll really rubbed me the wrong way.
Several reviews have praised both Bae Doona’s performance and the film’s “eroticism.” I hate to play the gender card, but I’d be very curious to see if female reviewers felt the same way (all the reviews I’ve read so far have been by men). Bae Doona did, I suppose, exactly what was asked of her, but is she really to be admired for smiling blandly at the camera for two hours? As for the film’s “eroticisim,” there were the requisite (not at all prudish) scenes of the “owner” having sex with the doll and seemingly endless shots of Bae Doona naked, along with an admittedly creative sequence in which she “deflates” and a young man blows her back up again with seemingly orgasmic results. Rather than erotic, though, it all struck me as a combination of awkward and just plain icky.
Then there’s the film’s “message,” repeated again and again, that the air doll is just one of many “empty” souls in a lifeless and lonely Tokyo. We’re all empty and waiting to be filled up. Uh huh.
Air Doll could have taken its premise and done something original or unexpected. Instead, we’re treated to the all-too-familiar sight of a female Pinocchio trying on lots of clothes, going shopping, learning new words, finding love, and learning that human beings aren’t created to exist alone. Along the way we see some graphic sex and repeated images of the air doll’s detachable vagina being scrubbed out in the bathroom. I felt as though the film was constantly trying to shock me, or at least lure me into its (ostensibly) whimsical world. I wasn’t seduced. And I have a nagging suspicion that my status as a straight female had something to do with it.
The sad thing is that I’m probably playing right into Koreeda’s hands, imposing my own perspective on a film that could, like its protagonist, be viewed as a vessel waiting to be filled up. Air Doll really is what you make of it, and I have a feeling that as it goes into wide release I’ll start hearing more and more about how groundbreaking, daring, erotic, and provocative it is (from female reviewers as well as male). And that the arguments for why it is all of these things will be very convincing. And in the interest of picking my battles, I’ll probably just keep my mouth shut.