Imagine a Japanese version of “Pygmalion” in which the sculptor continues to caress slabs of marble even after Galatea has come to life. That is the unusual premise of “Romance Doll,” a marital drama in which a sex doll maker’s rapt obssession with his new prototype, leads to rejection of his human muse. Directed by Yuki Tanada, from her own 2009 novel of the same title, the film initially holds promise to become a liberating erotic art film against the objectification of the female body. However, it ends up glorifying the heroic perfectionism of the (male) artisan and the sacrificial suffering of his wife.
Although it’s underlying attitudes about female sexuality might be problematic for female and feminist viewers, its suggestive subject matter (handled without offensive kinkiness) will set many an imaginative mind sprinting. “Romance Doll” was snapped up for theatrical release by several Asian territories. Following a premiere at Udine Far East Film Festival, it starts streaming on Netflix on July 24.
Films that make sex dolls their subject, such as Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Air Doll” or Graig Gillespie’s “Lars and the Girl” explore themes of loneliness and the fear of making human connections. “Romance Doll” doesn’t get inside the heads of the user or the doll. Instead, it focuses on the designer, showing how he becomes blindsided by the functionality of his craft till he loses sight of what drives sexual desire in the first place.
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The story is narrated in first person by Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi, “Million Dollar Man”), an unemployed art school graduate, who stumbles upon a job as a maker of sex dolls. Though he majored in sculpture, his first attempt is a dismal failure, ridiculed by boss Kubota (Pierre Taki) for its synthetic breasts, which are described as unrealistic and not grope-worthy.
To help Tetsuo mold flesh that produces tactile sensation, his mentor Kinji (Kitaro) suggests using a human cast. They advertise for a model for breast prosthesis used for “medical purposes” and hit the jackpot with Sonoko (Yu Aoi). Their session, strangely devoid of lust, instead brims with sweet adolescent coyness.
That such a harebrained scheme could work at all, coupled with Sonoko’s goddess-like perfection, imbue the film’s first half with a fairytale quality. Thus, we believe it when Tetsuo runs after Sonoko to tell her he loves her, and she accepts him without creeping out.
The whimsy and magic wear off fast after the two tie the knot. As orders for the Sonoko-shaped doll pour in, Tetsuo starts to come home late. It’s ironic that by working overtime to bring pleasure to others, he has lost his own sex drive. Worse still, he becomes so consumed by developing an upgraded model that his neglect of Sonoko turns into stonewalling and hardens into downright meanness.
Perhaps Tanada’s intention is to address how the Japanese work ethic harms family life, or to call men out for taking their wives for granted. However, Sonoko’s saintly patience and stoicism when confronting her own misfortunes puts her on a pedestal of idealized womanhood, without giving proper vent to her grievances. Instead of working through inherent problems in their marriage together, a maudlin plot turn conveniently lets Sonoko make the ultimate offering to fulfill Tetsuo’s artistic ambitions. That she’s like a disembodied spirit mystically absorbed into the doll is as disturbing as it is supposed to be touching.
Throughout her filmmaking career, and more recently in drama series like Netflix’s “My Husband Won’t Fit” or Prime Video’s “Tokyo Girl,” Tanada is known for her sympathetic and discerning treatment of female sexuality. Yet, for a film so up-front about sexual tools, it’s rather demure with lovemaking scenes. A final comment on Sonoko’s “horniness” does little to abet her existence as a flawless object of male fantasy.
Tanada, who consulted market leader Orient Industry for her research, disseminates a shipload of technical knowhow on “Dutch wives” in intriguing geeky fashion, educating audiences on the subtle differences between latex, vinyl, silicone and elastomer. She also infuses the atmosphere at the factory with warm friendship and jovial off-color dialogue. In fact, the backstories of Kubota and Kinji are more engaging than that of the main couple. However, by allotting so much screentime to their work ethic, it also absolves Tetsuo from his private failings.
At 40, Takahashi nonetheless oozes boyish charm, capturing Tetsuo’s dorky but gentle personality so well it makes audiences feel conflicted about his later self-centered behavior. Although Aoi has matured since starring in Tanada’s “One Million Yen Girl,” she hasn’t quite shed the angelic aura that makes her a kind of Japanese Mary Pickford. Admittedly she takes some risks in the sex scenes, but doesn’t let herself completely go as when she played a sexually demanding and manipulative femme fatale in Kazuya Shiraishi’s “Birds Without Names.”
Production designer Shinpei Inoue and DP Ryo Otsuka’s create a unique universe within a factory and office environment littered with strange machinery and rubbery mannequins. Contrasted to this, the attractively-lit cast conveys unexpected human warmth.