Oh, the mischief movie-makers get up to when they forego trimming their scripts and editing their films to a running time that their story can sustain.
When you title your movie “Romance Doll,” and build it around a Japanese artist turned sex doll (“‘Love doll,’ we call them now.”) sculptor, you’re just asking for trouble stretching that into something more than a 95 minute farce.
But even though Yuki Tanada’s film begins with a giggle and transitions into a guffaw or two, “Romance Doll” doesn’t always over-reach as it looks for something more profound to say on this subject, or rather dancing around this subject.
Tanada, of “Moon and Cherry,” “Mourning Recipe” and “One Million Yen and the Nigamushi Woman,” conjures up a comedy with a sad aftertaste, little moments of laughter chased-off by a breaking relationship and breaking hearts.
Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) answers a job opening at Kubota Co., an “unemployed artist just out of school.” The giggling old lady there figures a friend was pulling his leg when he recommended the place. Tetsuo shown up at a dumpy, tiny warehouse space where Kinja (Kitarô) designs ever more realistic sex dolls for the lonely-and-or-kinky in the somewhat prurient culture of Japan.
“Tetsu” takes the job, and after a misguided first effort, which the boss (Pierre Taki) “tests” by groping in front of the staff, gets into the spirit of the place, with its silicon-over-metal-armature (frame) dolls for the company’s discriminating clientele.
“I don’t want knockers, I want knockouts,” the boss hectors. The idea is to make a doll so real “it might come to life.”
The way to achieve that, the artist convinces his mentor Kinja, is to make their molds out of a real live woman, a “perfect” natural beauty. But when artist’s model Sonoko (Yû Aoi) shows up, the two men cast “rock, paper scissors” lots over who gets to smear the modeling plastic over her nude form, like a couple of sniggering school boys.
And Tetsu, a nervous wreck three years between girlfriends, falls in love at first…touch. Shockingly, Sonoko accepts his confession of affection and they court and marry.
One sitcom-worthy catch. He’s let her believe that she modeled for prosthetic breasts for cancer survivors, “helping people,” and not a sex doll. Another catch? The doll becomes a not-quite-underground/not-quite-porn sensation. Tetsu finds himself keeping stupid hours and not just a stupid secret as Kubota cranks out the silicon Sonokos.
Their marriage will be tested in ways tawdry, conventional and profound. We see that coming, as the film opens ten years in the future, and Tetsuo’s voice-over narration hints at a tragedy to come.
Tanada gets a wonderful tenderness and fragility out of the performances, with Aoi suggesting someone almost too delicate for this world, at least when she first marries. She expects marriage to be one thing and isn’t able to make it turn out that way.
Takahashi takes “shy” and “awkward” to their usual manifestations, and then some. “Tetsu” has let this job-for-life take over his life, much as Kinji did before him.
Mournful tone aside, Tanada is working within a sort of comedy-of-manners framework here. There’s a Japanese wedding and a funeral, lots of bowing and confessing and apologizing. From this culture, Tanada winks, geishas, “adult manga (comic books)” and sex dolls reached full flower.
A more compact package might have made the movie’s themes and ideas pop out more. Energy and story coherence tends to evaporate in the second act, setting up a more melodramatic third act. A tighter film would have made for a shorter and better “Romance Dolls.”
But as sedately-paced as it is, sprinkled with third act twists, it’s still an intriguing peek inside a culture and the Japanese psyche, one of the more interesting journeys one can take on a journey “Around the world with Netflix.”
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sex, nudity, adult themes
Cast: Yû Aoi, Issey Takahashi, Kitarô and Pierre Taki
Credits: Written and directed by Yuki Tanada. A Kadokawa release on Netflix.
Running time: 2:03