In the corona years, isolation has become a feeling too well-known by many. Making human connections, whether online or in-person, is in high demand yet invariably difficult to maintain. As communal creatures by nature, the increased distance from others, physically and emotionally, or the lack of ability, be it from having no time or just general discomfort at the idea, to create new meaningful connections has us asking what it means to be a human.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2009 film Air Doll, based on Yoshiie Gōda’s manga of the same name, tells the universal story of emotional isolation and never quite finding how to scratch that itch. Its first limited U.S. release on February 4th could not have come at a better time thematically with the remnants of pandemic isolation still lurking in peoples’ minds. Much like his other films, Air Doll digs into the deepest annals of the human experience breaking down what it means to be human at all.
Nozomi (Bae Doona) is an inflatable sex doll owned by Hideo (Itsuji Itao), who treats her like a real partner: he bathes her, takes her for walks in a wheelchair, and of course, has sex with her. One day, she develops consciousness and goes to explore the big city. She gets a job at a small video store and meets Junichi (Arata) and the two begin a tentative relationship. Nozomi continues her little routine of exploring her surroundings with childlike wonder, going to the video store and seeing Junichi, then returning home and acting like the brainless doll Hideo wants. Her illusion of normalcy is shattered when Hideo comes into her video store, leading her boss to assume she’s cheating on Junichi; the manager then proceeds to have sex with her. Hideo finds out that she’s alive later that night after she walks in on him finishing up intercourse with another doll and he kicks her out. Nozomi, now abandoned and jobless, tries to find the meaning of her existence in the factory she was made in.
The inherent isolation of the human experience, a thread common in most Kore-eda films, is front and center in Air Doll. Montages of people sitting alone in their apartments and having one-sided conversations hammer home the self-imposed loneliness, even in a large city like Tokyo. They self-medicate with porn, alcohol, and food to fill the void of human connection. Hideo buys a sex doll because he can’t make any connections with real women; he just wants someone to listen to him without question and outright spits on the idea of relationships. When he discovers Nozomi is alive, he immediately terminates their “relationship” because he can only love with manufactured intimacy. Junichi, disillusioned under late capitalism, feels like a replaceable cog in his dead-end job. He keeps around photos of his ex as a painful reminder of a connection lost. The most tragic thread is Nozomi herself: created to be nothing more than a plaything to project fantasies on, she spends the film in limbo between childlike wonder and very adult disappointment about her place in the world. She laments that she feels hollow like a mayfly after she is unable to connect with a group of mothers at a park. After her boss has sex with her, she realizes that, even while fully alive, she’s still a projection for men’s dreams. The more she experiences life with a heart and a brain, the more she yearns for a connection unavailable to her.
Air Doll is a melancholic journey into the human experience through the eyes of someone experiencing it for the first time. In true Kore-eda fashion, it’s a heart-wrenching study of loneliness and the inherent need for intimacy. Nozomi tries so hard to connect with those around her, and all it does is cause her anguish. Her story in combination with the tens of others we see is a portrait of longing; a primal yet unfulfilled need for what’s supposed to make us human.