Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll has a completely foreign sensibility. It’s not American, and it’s not one I’d take immediately for Japanese. We see Hideo (Itsuji Itao, who looks like a pooped-out Mathieu Amalric) press his face against the glass of a commuter train window; the raindrops on the windowpane are a barrier between him and the skyline. Tokyo shimmers faintly, a pale shade of blue. His spirit leavens as soon as he enters his apartment, which looks to be inside a warehouse. It has the interior of a messy teenage girl’s bedroom, and the exterior of a rusty tin can. Hideo enthusiastically recounts his day at work as he sups with his companion: a blow-up doll. The label on the box identifies it as a second-rate model called Candy; but he calls her Nozomi. By the next morning, sunlight has broken through the clouds. Hideo says goodbye, and leaves her in bed. But the balloon woman pads toward the window, and stretches out her vinyl hand. A bead of water falls from a hanging pipe and lands on her palm; when the camera pulls back we see a flesh-and-blood woman (Doona Bae) looking at a strange new world.
Within the first 10 minutes, Kore-eda has pulled the Pinocchio string; and later, at a restaurant, a little girl makes reference to Ariel from The Little Mermaid. When her father tries to rent the Disney movie from a video store at which Nozomi has improbably been hired as a clerk, he’s not sure what the title is. Neither is Nozomi. Clearly, they don’t see the connection; but Kore-eda makes connections that I might not have seen either. At the end of Hans Christian Andersen’s story, when his scaly princess dies, her body withers and turns to seafoam. But she has refused to slay her prince; in deliquescing, she’s attained an everlasting soul—a privilege that humans, one infers, tend to take for granted. The question our wastrel poses to her sex-toy Geppetto is one that’s riven poets since time immemorial: Why do human beings have hearts? But Kore-eda doesn’t offer Nozomi the consolation that Andersen gave her fishy fellow spirit. What makes this film feel so exotic—mysterious, even—is in what we sense is being withheld from us. Its absence permeates the imagery, and what remains is a grace that’s indistinguishable from despair. Kore-eda weds fairy tale with tragedy. He withholds what he doesn’t feel he has the right to provide.
The problem is that Air Doll takes in the world at the pace that its heroine does. (Just because she’s light as air doesn’t mean she’s quick on her feet.) Sprouting from a 20-page manga called The Pneumatic Figure of a Girl, the film seems two times too long. The schoolgirl strokes her doll’s hair with a fork; it’s a reference to Ariel, who, in the animated feature, was so bemused by the world above that she mistook cutlery for a comb. Nozomi mimics the people around her—particularly children—but her actions don’t allow us to see the world in a new light. Kore- eda leaves that to the heavyset metaphors that weigh down the subtitles. Before revealing her unorthodox origins, Nozomi says things like “What are birthdays?” and gets planer-straight answers—as if it wasn’t outlandish for an adult to ask such questions in earnest. A coworker, Junichi (Arata), whose hair is flying toward a flock of seagulls, becomes the sex doll’s boy toy. But when Nozomi deflates in the store, exposing her true nature, he doesn’t seem properly surprised—just turned on by her fragility. The world of the familiar, which is unfamiliar to Nozomi, is unfamiliar to us, too. By overinflating his metaphor about the postmodern condition, the director makes it pop.
Kore-eda isn’t a conventional filmmaker; he doesn’t foist plot points on us and tell us how to feel. There’s a splash of the anything-goes anarchy of Ponyo, but Air Doll may be the only film in which miracles are amoral. It’s almost the opposite of Lars and the Real Girl: Ryan Gosling was initially deemed the village loony for falling in love with latex. In Kore-eda’s Tokyo—where you don’t have to be replenished with a bike pump to feel hollow—he’d be considered the norm. Kore-eda’s core idea is a variation on The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s masterpiece—itself a reworking of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. In Cairo, Jeff Daniels played a silver-screen shadow who stepped into the theater and became Mia Farrow’s dream lover. Nozomi is a composite of those characters—both fantasist and fantasy. Allen’s film came to a heartbreaking conclusion; Kore-eda’s is even sadder: The air doll has no reverie to return to. She’s Galatea without Pygmalion. The poor thing is Galatea gone wrong.