The film opens as Hideo (Itsuji Itao), a lonely middle-aged waiter, returns home to his tiny flat. His misery melts away when he enthusiastically greets his companion - a sex doll named Nozomi.
"You're beautiful," Hideo tells her as he makes love to her in an outrageous, disturbing, and funny scene that'll make you squirm in your seat. (That creepy creaky-crunchy flesh-on-plastic noise doesn't help.)
The next morning, Nozomi comes to life.
In a 15-minute sequence devoid of dialogue, Korean actress Doona Bae brilliantly uses her face and body to express the doll's confusion and delight at being alive.
"I found myself with a heart," she says, in the voiceover. "With a heart I was not supposed to have."
Koreeda lovingly charts Nozomi's progress from a childlike naif who plays with toddlers in a sandbox to a sophisticated woman who devours books, draws portraits, and philosophizes about life.
Tragically, Hideo can see Nozomi only as a dead thing. He uses sex dolls as a substitute for his ex-girlfriend and as a way to avoid facing his loss. He freaks out when he finds out Nozomi is alive and begs her to become inanimate again.
Nozomi's education reaches its zenith when she falls in love with a video-store clerk. Unlike Hideo, Junichi (Arata) helps to keep Nozomi inflated (she's an air doll, remember) not with a pump but by breathing his loving breath into her.
Her lesson: We aren't born with a soul, we acquire one through our relationships with others.
Treat people as objects and they'll behave as objects.
Koreeda has a tendency to get heavy-handed with his metaphors. He goes overboard in a scene where Nozomi meets the dollmaker who created her. And at 125 minutes, his flick is too long.
But these are petty issues. Air Doll covers some of the same ground as that other postmodern Pinocchio story, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, while avoiding its facile sentimentality.
Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org.