Review: ‘Air Doll’ is a well-intentioned 2009 misfire from Hirokazu Kore-eda

A woman dressed in a maid's uniform stands in front of a grand stone building.
Bae Doona in the 2009 film “Air Doll.”

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A lonely Tokyo man’s blow-up sex doll gets a soul and creates her own exploratory life in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2009 adult fairy tale “Air Doll,” only now getting a theatrical release in Los Angeles. Those expecting from Japan’s maestro of minimalism a companion piece in fractured domestic dynamics to his career-high hit of a few years ago, “Shoplifters,” will have to dial down their hopes, though — this one’s more a well-intentioned misfire than a resonant urban fable. (It’s the rare Kore-eda he didn’t originate himself, having adapted a popular manga.)

Its failings, however, have nothing to do with Korean actress Bae Doona’s central performance as the awakened doll, Nozomi, which is an enchanting portrait of guilelessness and curiosity that exists in some unplaceable realm made of child’s play, otherworldly sentience and refined clowning. Watching her venture into her outdoor surroundings, accept a job at the local video store and fall in love with quiet fellow clerk Junichi (Iura Arata), then fake inanimacy when her master Hideo (Itsuji Itao) comes home for expected one-way conversation and sex, it’s remarkable how Bae’s commitment to the physical mechanics of a trickily metaphoric role in no way interferes with the heart she needs to show, and vice versa.


Rather, it’s the flatly sentimental approach to the premise that throws Kore-eda off his game. It’s as if he’s caught between a half-realized fantasy (with an increasingly cloying music-box score and some uncomfortably male-gazey moments) and the treatise on modern life’s deflating sadness that you sense is what he’d prefer to be exploring. And he does get some traction when depicting Nozomi’s cheerfully practical impact on the despairing souls in her orbit. Still, and this may sound weird, the “Toy Story” movies do a grippingly better job dramatizing the boundaries of life, knowledge and emptiness, although the dark, existentially ironic swerve toward the end of “Air Doll” is suitably powerful as a way for the movie to meaningfully leak hope.

'Air Doll'

In Japanese with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Starts Feb. 4, Laemmle Monica, Santa Monica; and Laemmle Glendale