There’s a lot of creative mileage in the Pygmalion myth. As Ovid told it, it’s simple and straightforwardly misogynistic; the sculptor Pygmalion, disgusted with the state of womankind, carves a ‘perfect’ woman from ivory, who is then brought to life by Aphrodite. The couple are married and have children and – uncharacteristically for Greek mythology, that is that. Normally in cinema, versions of the myth have also been simple and somewhat misogynistic and have been played mostly for laughs as in Mannequin or Weird Science. But there are more complex psychological implications to the story, especially in essentially monotheistic modern cultures, and they have been explored in books and films as wide-ranging as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein Carlo Collodi’s (and Walt Disney’s) Pinocchio, Blade Runner and – not least, Hirokazu Koreeda’s often overlooked Air Doll (2009).

Based on the manga by Yoshiie Gōda and beautifully filmed by noted Taiwanese cinematographer Ping Bin Lee (In the Mood for Love, Norwegian Wood), the film uses less familiar, down at the heels residential areas of Tokyo as the key locations for what feels at times like a bittersweet fairytale. Aided by a beautifully wistful soundtrack by World’s End Girlfriend (Katsuhiko Maeda), the film, despite some comedic – and a few horrific – elements, is essentially a two-hour sigh. The story itself is simple; one day, for reasons that are never explained (although the randomness is itself part of the story’s raison d’etre), a cheap inflatable sex doll named Nozomi (Doona Bae from The Host and Cloud Atlas) comes to life. The film documents her attempts to understand her surroundings and find her way among her fellow humans. It’s charming and sweet – at times it teeters on the edge of sentimentality – but at its heart it’s a bleak film about loneliness, and the attempt to connect meaningfully with other human beings in a world which seems designed to counter such efforts.

As the film opens, we meet Nozomi’s ‘owner’, Hideo (a magnificent performance by Itsuju Itao) a put-upon, isolated middle-aged loner, as he makes his way home from work, stopping to buy fancy shampoo – as it turns out, for his sex doll. Although one-sided, the relationship he has with the yet non-sentient Nozomi is exactly that; a relationship, in which she is not only his sexual partner, but also the repository for his conversation and observations about his job, as a harassed server in a restaurant and his hobbies and interests. It’s a relationship that is sweet and tender and therefore also pretty creepy. Itao is known as both a popular comedian and actor, but although his performance absolutely utilizes his comedic skills, it’s never broad or crude and he manages to convey the depths of despair that lie behind Hideo’s apparently cheerful disposition as he negotiates the claustrophobic limits of his daily life.

Whereas most of the previously mentioned variations on the Pygmalion story tend to focus on the creator(s) as much as their creation, or on the protagonist’s search for that creator, Air Doll initially feels less dramatic as we follow Nozomi as she familiarizes herself with her surroundings while Hideo is at work. Nozomi – an inspired, sometimes uncanny physical performance by Bae – is an anomaly. On the one hand, she’s an innocent, childlike character with very little knowledge of the world other than what Hideo has told her, but on the other, she has an innate understanding of the sexual reasons for her own existence and the instinct to – at least for a while – keep her newly discovered sentience from her owner. After walking the streets and talking to passersby, with mixed results, Nozomi – dressed as a stereotypical ‘sexy maid’ – one of the few outfits she has – wanders into a video shop and shortly thereafter, begins working there. This puts her in direct contact with her co-workers – notably Junichi (Arata Irua), with whom she falls in love, and the shop’s cinephile owner, played by Ryô Iwamatsu. If this had been a different kind of film, the way the pair school Nozomu in cinema, and the movies then teach her about life, would have been the whole point, but here it remains a charming, underdeveloped aspect of the film. If there is a real focus here, it’s on the way in which we are all here on earth, together but alone.

There are people in the film that Nozomi connects with and who she sees herself in and vice versa. There’s a middle-aged woman who Nozomi mistakes for another doll because of the seams in her tights, inadvertently exacerbating her insecurity about her age. She meets an old man, who isn’t interested in her sexually, as most men are, and who recognizes her emptiness and yearning and shares his observations about ageing and loneliness. And there’s Junichi, who has recently broken up with his girlfriend and convinces Nozomi that they are kindred spirits, which she takes more literally than intended, with eventually macabre and tragic results. Of all the people Nozomi meets, the one she might reasonably expect to connect with on the most human level is Hideo, who for all his sleaziness, talked to her as a person every day about his life and work, but in fact when she returns after having been absent for a while, she finds that she has already been replaced by a more up-to-date doll. Hideo – who by now we have seen at work, where he is a lowly, despised figure – recognizes Nozomi and her humanity, but he is also to a degree repulsed by it. Although his relationships with the dolls are tender and personal, the key point to him is their compliant, silent non-sentience. His relationship with his inert partners is the one area of his life that Hideo has complete control over.

Nozomi, looking up the address on the box she came in, almost incidentally meets her maker, among the detritus of dolls like her who are waiting to be disposed of and new ones who are being made. The experience is a benign one and the maker is sympathetic, but this key moment, like most of the others in the film, isn’t exactly uplifting. This godlike figure, it turns out, can’t tell her any more than anyone else, or anyone else’s god can about the meaning of their life. From his perspective as a doll-maker talking to one of his creations who has ‘grown a heart’, the only real difference he can see between himself and Nozomi is that he will be ‘burnable garbage’ and she won’t.

At times, Air Doll feels overly whimsical, and its pace sometimes meanders a little (it could comfortably lose 15-20 minutes and be a stronger film for it) but its underlying melancholy rescues it from cloying sentimentality. There are not many bleaker scenes in cinema than the one where Nozomi washes out her detachable vagina after being blackmailed into sex by her boss. Or more heartbreaking than when, after being reconciled reluctantly with her role as a sex doll, she tells the slightly distant Junichi that he can do whatever he wants with her, and his response is that he wants to let the air out of her body. Which he does; before pumping her up and deflating her again and again.

Hirokazu Koreeda went on to win the Palme d’Or in 2018 with his lovely film Shoplifters and some of his earlier movies like the powerful Nobody Knows (2004) remain better known, but Air Doll is a charmingly desolate tragicomedy that deserves to be seen.

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