During a poignant encounter in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s idiosyncratic, yet droll and resonant contemporary fable, Air Doll, a reclusive doll maker, Sonoda (Jô Odagiri) tells a troubled inflatable doll turned video store clerk, Nozomi (Du-na Bae) that the main difference between her and a human being is biodegradability. In a way, Sonoda’s simplified differentiation between burnable and nonburnable trash captures the essence of Air Doll as well, exploring not only socially reductive gender roles, but also the meaning of being human in a culture of technology, mass production, and consumption that substitutes connection for instant gratification. At its most basic is Nozomi’s role as a sexual surrogate for her owner, Hideo (Itsuji Itao) who, despite naming her after a former girlfriend, prefers to avoid the emotional entanglements of a real-life relationship. Another is her misdirected attempt at goodwill towards an insecure receptionist that alludes to the problems of aging in a youth-obsessed society, having been increasingly marginalized at work, replaced by her younger coworker. Another is her friendship with an elderly man who relies on a portable breathing apparatus for survival, recasting the notion of the human body as a network of biological functions within the modern reality of artificial life support systems. Another surrogacy emerges in the brooding Junichi’s (Arata) fetishistic attraction towards her, implied in his continued obsession (and perhaps guilt) over a lost love. It is this recurring convergence of organic and synthetic, structure and plasticity throughout the film that is also reflected in the bookending image of a young woman awakening to find beauty in the mundane, a transitory affirmation of humanity in the face of obsolescence and disposability.
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