Readers may know Yuki Tanada from her award-wining narratives Moru (2001) and One Million Yen Girl (2008) or from her work as screenwriter, e.g. Miwa Ninagawa’s Sakuran (2006)). For her latest narrative, Romance Doll (2020), Yuki Tanada adapts, just like she did for her One Million Yen Girl (2008), her own novel to the silver screen.
[Romance doll is available on Netflix.]
One day, after being tricked by his friend, Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi) finds himself taking an interview to become a sculptor at a love doll company called Kubota & Co. While he has no desire to become such kind of sculptor, he accepts the job. Not long thereafter, Tetsuo proudly presents his first sculpted model to the boss of the company but is dumbfounded when he considers this model trash – the boobs are not realistic enough.
Co-sculptor Kinji (Kitaro) proposes, as to get the realism perfect, to use a real art-model for the next version of the doll. The first woman to (unknowingly) stand model for a love doll is Sonoko (Yu Aoi). Tetsuo, who conducts the whole process of casting Sonoko’s breasts, immediately falls in love with her. When he realizes that she forgot her earrings, he runs after her. At the station, he does not only return the earrings, but also confesses his love for her and ask her to go out with him. Sonoko accepts.
Romance Doll is what we would call a relational drama. Tanada’s relational drama explores how the dimension of the secret problematizes the establishment of an inter-subjective relationship and condemns both parties to invest in a fantasy of a happy functional relationship.
While Tetsuo wants to tell the truth about his work, he does not succeed in telling her because the lie that Kinji concocted to attract models (i.e. that they, as medical workers, make breast prostheses for women in need) gives Sonoko a sense of fulfillment and because he, due to the success of the doll with Sonoko’s breasts, feels increasingly forced to keep his job as a love doll sculptor a secret. Tetsuo’s inability to share his secret and his growing preoccupation to keep this secret hidden renders him unable to meet Sonoko as subject and realize she also has a secret. Tetsuo’s growing preoccupation with protecting his unsaid is also one of the reasons why he starts taking his work as sculptor more seriously and starts neglecting Sonoko.
The fact that Sonoko and Tetsuo are unable to reveal their subject to each other is evident in the kind of speech that marks their marriage: it is all empty speech. While Sonoko and Tetsuo converse, they avoid speaking to each other’s subject and fail to bring their own subject into play. Both Sonoko and Tetsuo keep their speech empty in order to ensure that the façade of a happy marriage is maintained. But, as the narrative shows, maintaining such imaginary lie comes at a subjective and relational cost. Erasing one’s subjective position in function of the semblance of a happy marriage is not only detrimental to one’s subjective wellbeing – i.e. subjective loneliness – but will also eventually cause the relation to malfunction, as it fails to accede to the intersubjective level, the level that forms the basis of a true relation of love. And when, after being hidden from the other subject for so long, the subjective truth is finally vocalized, this truth – a truth that shatters the deceptive fiction of a happy marriage – endangers the husband-wife relation, while, at the same time, creating the final chance for their both to reveal oneself as subject to the other.
The beauty of Romance Doll lies in how the sudden revelation of the truth forces both subjects to accede to the intersubjective level they have so long avoided. It is, in fact, truly moving to see these two subjects, who are suddenly forced to acknowledge the illusionary character of their relational happiness to each other, tread the more dangerous path of speaking with their subject and listening to the other’s subjectivity.
While this narrative has, at the level of the narrative, some similarities with the traditional Japanese romance films, this film is radically different. The major difference is to be found in the refusal by Tanada to cheaply exploit certain narrative elements to maximize the drama – Romance Doll is, in truth, a narrative with a very understated atmosphere. If the narrative succeeds in being moving and heartwarming, it is because Yu Aoi and Issey Takahashi bring the different stages of the relation of Tetsuo and Sonoko in a very natural and believable way to life.
Before discussing the cinematographical composition of Romance Doll, we want to offer a quick reading of the function of the love doll. As Kinji’s desire to create the ultimate love doll underlines, the love doll is like a real woman, while not being a real woman as such. How to understand this? The love doll is a ‘real’ woman in so far as she is a fantasmatic shell, a body upon which a male subject can project one’s sexual and romantic fantasies on. The business of love-dolls and the sub-culture of Dollers beautifully illustrates that for a woman to be able to loyally serve man’s sexual desire and his fantasies, she needs to be devoid of any form of subjectivity whatsoever.
That reality (i.e. the need for the body to be a realistic canvas for male sexual desire) is important is made evident when the company’s boss calls Tetsuo’s first doll rubbish. The reason for this failure, as later identified by Kinji, is to be found in the fact that he, and already for several years, lacks (sexual) experience with a real female body. As Tetsuo has no such experience, as he is unable to recall how a real woman feels, he is unable to turn this female form into a functional canvas for the male desiring subject.
The cinematographical composition of Romance Doll stands out due to its attractive dynamism. While static moments are, of course, present, Tanada relies more on dynamic shots – i.e. tracking as well as spatial moving shots – to frame his narrative. The dynamism does not only reside in Tanada’s reliance on fluid camera movement, but also in the framing as such. Focusing on the framing, one soon discovers that static shots are often marked by a real subtle budging. This subtle shakiness allows the composition to attain a pleasing naturalness (Cine-note 1).
Romance Doll is a great romance narrative, but what makes Tanada’s film enjoyable is not its overindulgence in drama, but its refusal to exploit the dramatic turns of the narrative for easy tears. Tanada, by giving her narrative an understated atmosphere, gives the main actors the crucial responsibility in making the evolution of their relationship not only believable but also natural. As expected, Yu Aoi and Issey Takahashi do not evade their responsibility and succeed in delivering one of the most moving relational metamorphoses of recent years.
Narra-note 1 (spoiler): For Tetsuo, the built-in doll he attempts to make has, for a certain reason, a different function. For him, this doll is not a screen to project his fantasies on, but a way to meet the loved one he lost. While this doll allows him to meet his loved one, the doll also confronts him with the fact that she is not around anymore.
Cine-note 1: Let is also note how beautiful and natural the various references to transiency (i.e. Cicada’s and Sakura trees) are integrated in the composition and the unfolding of the narrative.