AIR DOLL: That Empty Feeling

The shot of a naked Nozomi (Bae Doona) pumping air into her stomach is the singular tone-setter of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll. Both insightful and ridiculous, but coy about both, this drama takes the oft-tread path of exploring the human condition through the minds of an outsider. Like Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001), Kore-eda is mostly concerned with the topics of love and belonging. Over time, Nozomi finds herself beginning to understand human beings on the level of what is missing in their lives, the cracks in the foundation of their existences in the world, and how they are not so different from her.

The World is the Summation of Others

Nozomi is an inanimate air doll owned by a lonely man named Hideo (Itsuji Itao) who works as a waiter. He has dinner with her where he spills his heart on his life and his ordinary existence. He has sex with her in bed and then washes her tube that he ejaculates into. He takes her for bicycle rides around town sometimes. Nozomi inexplicably becomes animated one day and turns slowly into a semi-human form (but still inflated and filled with nothing but air) when she reaches out to touch raindrops on a porch. The logic behind whatever may be animating her or how all of this “works” is beside the point and rightfully never discussed.

AIR DOLL: That Empty Feeling
source: Dekanalog

Nozomi is not recognized as a doll in the film. This is a marked distinction from films like Chappie (2015) where the cruelty of humankind to the “other” is made the central discussion point. Instead, here, the judgment comes from Nozomi on the humans she interacts with. She observes their behaviors and mimics them and learns rather fast, but she is also introspective. She pontificates that people live extraordinarily detached lives, which may be the reason why they simply don’t realize she’s not one of them. “It seems the world is the summation of others. We lead our scattered lives, perfectly unaware of each other.” Disjointed individuals, tangential to Nozomi – a single slacker who lives in a messy apartment, a young girl who lives in her neighborhood with her father, two employees at a video rental store, and her owner Hideo – all find their lives metaphysically affected by her presence. Their ups and downs, their daily struggles, and their hangups become an element of fascination that defines the uniqueness and loneliness of human existence.

Insightful and Perceptive

There is a ripe irony in an air doll gaining consciousness into a real woman (the kind of thing a person who owns an air doll would fantasize about happening) but then going on to philosophize about her own loneliness and identity. The movie sort of ends nearly halfway through in terms of Nozomi’s character arc – she finally faces her own mortality when she accidentally punctures her hand on a metal shelf and needs to be blown back up by mouth by her coworker.

AIR DOLL: That Empty Feeling
source: Dekanalog

The second half of the movie, which sort of wafts and lets stream-of-consciousness carry it, is reliant on the audience’s interest in Nozomi bouncing around and continuing to observe people’s behaviors. It’s not exactly enthralling and there are stretches that leave one scratching their head in anticipation of… well, something to happen, but Bae Doona is so perfectly ingenuous in her performance, that it’s a constant game of anticipating whether someone is going to freak out at her idiosyncratic nature.


Kore-eda employs sentimentality to good use – an effective piano score plays nearly continuously throughout – though parts of the movie get a bit too cutesy. Yet these are cut nicely with weirdly humorous moments, especially between Nozomi and Hideo whose relationship is at once pathetic but also respectably charming. He is a down-on-his-luck lonely man and one can’t blame him for getting an air doll to keep him company. It’s just one of those cinematic sparks of inspiration that make Kore-eda’s film unique in its exploration of why we feel so empty inside, despite constantly being surrounded by people. When an old man tells Nozomi the story of the mayfly, a bug that exists only to reproduce, she feels a little more in common with nature. It’s a nice and melancholy twist on the sappy tropes where we insist the human form is the ultimate and most righteous goal of any being – living or inanimate. Instead, Air Doll suggests, maybe we are all actually empty sex dolls, wafting in the wind, waiting to find meaning.

Air Doll is currently streaming on VOD in the United States.

Did you see Air Doll? What were your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below!

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