It has more nudity and a darker, more complicated story than I'd expected. However it's still sweet and funny.
It's about an inflatable sex doll that comes alive, which sounded to me like a variation on the "magical girlfriend" formula. There are a million like them and sure enough, this movie was adapted from a manga. Video Girl Ai, Buttobi CPU
, My Dear Marie
, Hand Maid May
, Steel Angel Kurumi
, Oh My Goddess
... in all of them, a male loser acquires a girlfriend who's either robotic, alien, supernatural, superhuman or the like. This is to reassure Japanese otaku that even if you lack all social skills and never go outside or even talk to anyone, a girlfriend will still drop out of the sky to worship the ground you walk on and clamp on to you like a limpet.
Despite the tone of the preceding paragraph, I quite like these stories. They tend to be emotionally wholehearted and rather sweet, or at least that's true of the good ones. However this film's storyline breaks the pattern. Bae Doona is the inflatable sex doll of Itsuji Itao, who appears to be trying to have an emotional relationship with it. He has one-sided conversations with her. He dresses her up and takes her outside. Oddly he never comes across as creepy, but instead gentle and a man who's looking for love and merely in need of a few pointers in how to go about it.
However one day while he's at work, his doll gets dressed and goes outside. She's lovely. She doesn't have a clue about anything and she's exploring the world like a baby would. Over time she grows mentally and emotionally to the level of a child, then finally a woman, but whether or not she's being played by Bae Doona, she's always still a doll. She has plastic seams, an air nozzle and removable genitals. In one scene she even has a translucent shadow, which is a nice touch even though it doesn't make sense because she's wearing clothes at the time. She can get punctures. She has no instinctive understanding of the world and is capable of inappropriate behaviour that made me laugh, especially in her fascination with an older woman who's clearly not as young and pretty as she once was. Doona finds a part-time job, starts hanging out with a colleague there, explores the world in a maid outfit and is generally adorable...
...but she doesn't tell Itao that she's alive. I kept waiting for her to do so, but she kept sneaking back before Itao got home, stripping off her clothes and pretending to be lifeless. This is weird.
The thing about this film is that underneath its gentle, funny surface, it's actually quite dark. Itao has emotional problems. Obviously you knew that from the fact that he's chosen an inflatable sex doll for a girlfriend, but eventually the film goes there explicitly. They explore it. Meanwhile Doona isn't particularly honest, instead having an instinctive reflex to tell lies and of course is keeping her big secret from Itao. She's funny, mind you. In fact she's lovely and everything you'd expect in a "magical girlfriend" anime... except that she's cutting herself off from the world, even as she explores it and delights in it. There's also a heavy existentialist element. "I am an air doll. A substitute for sexual desire." Doona takes no pleasure in sex and regards it simply as her function, but she's interested in life, death and the differences between dolls and humans. For example humans will become burnable rubbish after they're dead, while plastic is regarded as non-burnable.
This is a film about communication and our failures to do so. Viewed in that light, it's a classical tragedy, although personally I found the finale oddly uplifting with those drifting seeds of hope. In the midst of all that urban solitude, two people meet and talk. Koreeda has called this a film about the loneliness of urban life and the question of what it means to be human.
It's Bae Doona's film, obviously. She's on-screen almost throughout and she has a far richer, more complicated role than you'd expect of a plastic sex doll. She has character growth. She has a soul "as pure, as beautiful and as spotless as a new-born baby's", but she's also secretive, deeply odd, sometimes hilarious and following some fairly dark philosophical paths. Sex depresses her, because it reminds her of what she is. She sees herself as hollow and as a substitute for real human relationships, but the film goes to some lengths to say that everyone in the city is like that. We're all empty inside. We're all neglecting the human contact we need to stay alive. Well, that's what the film's saying, anyway.
Doona isn't Japanese, incidentally. She's Korean, which is impressive because her Japanese sounded as good as a native speaker's to me. I'd seen her before in Korean films (Barking Dogs Never Bite
) and in fact before this she'd only been in one Japanese movie, Linda Linda Linda (2005), and in that she was playing a Korean exchange student whose Japanese wasn't good. She's also supposed to be making her Hollywood debut soon in Cloud Atlas, for the Wachowskis. Anyway, Doona does outstanding work here... and also gets pleasingly naked, which perhaps might be part of how she got the role in the first place. There are lots of strong actresses in Japan and lots of girls who'll willing to strip off on-camera, but maybe Koreeda had trouble finding the right person who also filled both requirements? However in fairness, he's since said publically that "to act this role I couldn't think of any Japanese actress".
One factor that's drawn comment is that here a Korean is playing a woman being used as a sex object by a Japanese man, which might raise memories of World War Two and the Japanese army's tens of thousands of Korean sex slaves. (They raped other nationalities too, of course.) That was something that Koreeda needed to be aware of, but personally I think his film transcends any such associations and makes them a non-issue.
I think I like this film quite a lot. I'd guess it's easy to misunderstand, mind you, with some people perhaps missing the darker undertones because they weren't expecting them and because on the surface it's so light and charming. It's a film to make you happy, yet it's also slow and full of quiet, sometimes dark touches. There are other kinds of sexual objectification, e.g. maid cafes, or an otaku wanking to a figurine. There are other people's tiny stories running almost imperceptibly through the film, with even the most cursory walk-on roles not being forgotten. Doona metaphorically meets God. This is a disconcerting movie, given the light-hearted charm it's employing in the service of downbeat themes, but I like it. It's a wistful paen to lost humanity.