Romance Doll – Netflix Movie Review

A Lifeless Romance

There’s a lot of stigma attached to love dolls. Even now, in an age of acceptance and understanding, owning and using a love doll is still something that’s frowned upon. Japanese movie Romance Doll is an interesting drama in that respect. With an intention of breaking down some of the preconceptions surrounding love dolls, the film slips up when it matters most, throwing in an abundance of long shots, an overlong run-time and a bare-bones story that, while emotionally engaging, takes far too long to get to the point.

The story begins with a brief moment of foreshadowing before jumping back 10 years. It’s here we meet Tetsuo Kitamura. This eager, enthusiastic young man begins working as a modeler at a doll-making factory but his first attempt is laughed out the building, partly thanks to the disproportional breasts. Instead, he’s told to bring a model in for a more realistic depiction of body proportions. It’s here we meet Sonoko and immediately it’s love at first sight for Tetsuo.

What follows from here is a part-romance/part slice-of-life drama as Tetsuo keeps his true work a secret from Sonoko while their relationship blossoms and leads to marriage. Only, Sonoko has a secret of her own and across the 2 hour run-time, these come crashing to a head during the climactic third act that rounds things out nicely with a befitting final scene.

What begins as a simple task of making dolls to serve its clientele becomes something much more heartfelt and meaningful toward the end of the film. There’s some nice scenes late on with a grief-stricken Tetsuo and these are arguably the strongest moments in the entire picture. The aforementioned final scenes are a great way to end this one too; a look back at how far this industry has come and a nod to an earlier joke made by Tetsuo when he first started working.

The biggest problem this movie has though is with its pacing. There’s so many unnecessarily long shots here and on top of that the movie adds agonizing stretches of silence. The result is something that feels lifeless and lacks the energy and enthusiasm needed to keep your attention across the 2 hour run-time. This is a film that requires a lot of patience but if you’re willing to give it some time, the third act does give some decent pay-off.

The ideas are there and no doubt some will take to the premise, which is at least original enough to check out. Unfortunately the movie feels overlong and lacks the pacing needed to drive a romance like this. There’s definitely some brownie points for the acting and normalizing this industry, but beyond that Romance Doll is sadly a forgettable drama that could have been so much more.

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  • Verdict - 5/10

2 thoughts on “Romance Doll – Netflix Movie Review”

  1. My Review of Romance Doll
    A beautiful and thought-provoking love story that captivated me from beginning to end. I initially thought a story about a young man making sex dolls falling in love with a beautiful woman and marrying her, going through profound difficulties and then recalibrating their love for each other was going to be completely implausible, ludicrous even, however, that proved not to be the case. This film combined comedy, farce, powerful themes of sexuality, love, eroticism, sadness, remorse, redemption and tragedy.
    Yuki Tanada’s film can I think needs to be seen in three parts. The first detailing a naive artist sculptor Tetsuo (Issey Takahashi), fresh from art school securing a job as a sculptor making sex dolls. The love story is narrated throughout by Tetsuo and was, I thought initially, going to be difficult to make it plausible given the work he had secured for himself (making sex dolls). The possibly weird sex themes and culture surrounding sex dolls and the sex industry can be viewed as weird, warped and even perverted but, it worked beautifully in the end.
    Tetsuo developed a very strong friendship with fellow sex doll maker and designer, Kinji (Kitaro) and completely embraces the vision and objective to make the ultimate life-size sex doll with realistic “knockout” breasts. The hiring of a model (under false pretences) to make a cast of her breasts is a part of the plan to make the “ultimate doll” but this seemingly pathetic, comic strip idea, conjured up by the mischievous designers and sculptors was carried through with humour and mirth.
    The scene when the truly beautiful Sonoko (Yû Aoi) shows up at the factory cranks the film up to another level. Sonoko (Yu Aoi) proved to be an elegant beauty with zen like calmness changing the whole dynamic of the film, as the terrible two carry out their rue, convincing the model that the breast mould will be used to make prosthetic breasts for women who have had a mastectomy. Dressed in white overalls, the terrible two pull off the rue with cheeky tenacity and Tetsuo after rock paper scissors even got to apply the modelling plastic over the beautiful Sonoko’s breasts. Further, after even more shenanigans between Tetsuo and Kinji, Tetsuo even managed to fondle Sonoko’s breasts because she was led to believe that her “breasts will help other people” and that she had done something that will be making a difference. It is when Tetsuo feels her breasts that his life would change, he has a “heaven and earth” moment and the scene of him running after Sonoko after she had left the factory, catching up with her at the railway station and announcing to her, “I am in love with you” and asking her to date him is touching. The bemused, incredulous Sonoko agrees and the two marry and for much of the 10 years of marriage, it is period of unremitting bliss but on Tetsuo’s part, his court and spark was based on a lie that he designed medical prosthetics and mannequins, not love dolls and despite his close friend and colleague Kinji desperately urging Tetsuo to tell the truth or “she’ll break up with you”, Tetsuo sustains the smoke and mirrors throughout their marriage and Sonoko believes that her husband has a “fantastic job” and that the mould of her breasts had helped him and that she herself was “taking part in helping other people”. It quickly became harder for Tetsuo to tell Sonoko the truth. Indeed, the truth was buried or to be precise, a ticking bomb was buried and it would explode later wreaking havoc in their relationship and marriage.
    The wedding scene was uplifting, beautiful and the life they started to share was blissful. Tetsuo had the perfect wife who adored him, prepared fantastic meals for him, loved him unconditionally, gave herself to him body and soul. It does not get any better than that.
    However, the vision and objective to make the ultimate life-size sex doll with realistic “knockout” breasts progressed and the model using Sonoko’s breasts proved to be a great success with hundreds of orders pouring into the factory and the pressures on Kinji (Kitaro)and Tetsuo to make a new and even better model began to mount. Work started to consume Tetsuo and he starts to work longer and longer hours, “I will be home late” and is so tired in one scene that he falls asleep making love to his beautiful wife. Yuki Tanada clearly explores the impact of work a sex, sexuality and marriage in this film. Work can destroy lives. It does destroy sex lives, destroys relationships and marriages and that was exactly what started to happen to Tetsuo’s and Sonoko’s marriage which was burdened further by Tetsuo’s lie about what his actual work involved.
    The death of his great friend and colleague Kinji ends the blissful period for Tetsuo and Soniko and opens up a difficult time where the marriage is tested and its foundations rocked to the brink of destruction. The pressure on Tetsuo doubles after Kinji passes away and he sinks into a battle of attrition to design an upgrade the new sex doll which is sabotaged by Kinji’s replacement designer and sculptor, Morizumi who turns out to be an industrial spy passing on valuable design data to a competitor company.
    Work place politics and pressures become immense for Tetsuo but he cannot discuss these pressures in an open and transparent way with Sonoko because he is making sex dolls, not medical prosthetics and mannequins. He started to come home later, becomes mean spirited, wrapped up in his own problems, completely oblivious to needs of his beautiful and loving wife. Tetchy, irritable rude, alienated and showing no disregard for the efforts Sonoko had undertaken to look after him, the beautifully prepared food, caring enquiries about his well-being. He even ignores a profoundly important texting communication from his wife indicating that she needed to tell him something important, “will you be home late tonight”? Tetsuo does not even bother responding.
    The marriage is in big trouble at this point in the film but Tetsuo remains in a state of self-obsessed splendid isolation and even after he after he comes home late (again) and finds the note from Sonoko saying that “My father isn’t well, I’ll leave early tomorrow, stay there for 2, 3 days” the penny does not drop. An indifferent and almost belligerent Tetsuo goes on to have a fling while his wife was away barely making an effort to contact her and see how she and her ill father where doing were doing. After the Karoke scene and Hotel room fling with a beautiful woman begins to see Tetsuo wake up to the fact that Sonoko would not answer her phone. Sonoko’s absence begins to switch the light on with Tetsuo and when he enquires about her father after he receives a call from her mother, he learns that Sonoko has had no contact with them and her parents have been unable to contact her. The penny drops, he begins to understand that his marriage is in big trouble.
    The third part of this film deals with the return of a very drunk Sonoko, fresh from a school reunion being helped by her former male school colleague, Kazuya. An outraged Tetsuo complains about her absence but Sonoko asserts control of the narrative by pointing out to Tetsuo, “Did you ever call me when you came home late” and refuses to engage in any further questions from Tetsuo and indicates to him, “Give me a week, then I’ll tell you everything”. Her secret was going to be revealed. I initially thought, particularly after Tetsuo read the text sent from Kazuya, “So nice to see you again, lets meet up again” that Sonoko was going to detail an affair or affairs with a man or men while her husband had neglected her and that Tanada, (author and producer) was going to explore the themes of real sex, sexuality and eroticism through Sonoko’s experiences while she was so neglected by her husband.
    The key meeting between Sonoko and Tetsuo revolves around a simple question Sonoko asks Tetsuo: “Do you have any secrets”? It is at this point that he reveals that he made sex dolls not medical prosthetics and mannequins and he had not told her the truth because he thought she would despise him. Sonoko (Yu Aoi) makes a massive impact on the film in this scene asking Tetsuo did he despise Kinji for making love dolls and “That means all these years you didn’t trust me, right”? Sonoko continuing to control the narrative asks, “Is that it? It’s not is it”? Tetsuo then reveals that he had slept with another woman.
    The seminal moment in the film is when Sonoko reveals that she too had a fling! “Well, so did I” she states. “I slept with another man”. “Just once”. “I am so sorry”. Sonoko refused to give specific details and an incredulous Tetsuo has the brass neck to ask her, “why”? Sonoko reveals a “common reason” that she was lonely, that she thought she had become a burden on Tetsuo and that her life had become simply unbearable. Divorce, at this point of the film was on the radar and Sonoko clearly indicated that was going to happen even though she did not want it to. In the film Sonoko makes it clear to Tetsuo that she wanted to be alone. She placed divorce documentation on the table and advised that these would need to be signed by Tetsuo and submitted to the Municipal Offices.
    The tension and sadness in this scene was palpable and when Sonoko details that she needed “to go somewhere, I’ll be back in about two weeks time”. A distraught Tetsuo pressures her to reveal why, and it is at this point that she details the devastating news that she has stomach cancer. A remorseful Tetsuo is reminded by Sonoko that she had tried to tell him previously but he was never home. The self-absorbed designer and sculpter had completely ignored her communications. Sonoko refused to allow Tesuo to accompany her to the hospital but he bounces her into allowing him to when he turns up unannounced as she checks into the hospital for her operation.
    The hospital ward scene when Tetsuo and Sonoko start to communicate again is powerful and moving as the reconciliation starts to take place and for Tetsuo, redemption starts to unfold. “How on earth did I manage to waste our marriage”? They fall back in love and Tetsuo unequivocally lets Sonoko know that “all I want is to be with you”. The marriage continued but the film would go explore the reasons why it went from strength to strength for the remaining time they would spend with each other. Sonoko dedicates the remaining time she has with Tetsuo helping him perfect the upgraded SONOKO doll and finish it, even offering her body to be used to assist him complete his artistic endeavour, including the genital part of the doll, the “hole”. And to that end, Tetsuo and his beautiful wife make good on completing the upgraded sex doll. Along the way the two make love every day and re-ignite their sex life, sensually, erotically, indeed, the sex scenes were beautifully handled and the cinematography was superb. Sonoko even reminding Tesuo that her affair had improved her sexual skills, whispering, “I think my affair did me good”.
    Sonoko’s cancer returned and Tetsuo narrates her decline and demise and with tendeness, love and sadness. She makes love with him one last time, on top, for her and “the doll” and then passes away. The chemistry between Tetsuo and Sonoko was simply magic and Yuki Tanada clearly brought the best out of the two actors for every scene, especially the love scenes. I was moved and it made me think about love and how you can lose someone you love and how you are completely unprepared for that loss you can and would be..
    Tetsuo completes the doll and even tries it out to and briefly imagines that Sonoko is alive, the doll is briefly a reincarnated Sonoko. Again, a deeply moving scene that ultimately drives home the fact to Tetsuo that his wife has gone and the doll, despite looking exactly like his wife was lifeless. It too, ultimately, was dead. No real human interaction. No tenderness and kindness. A lifeless lump of plastic.
    SONOKO the upgraded sex doll was of course a roaring success, the “legend doll” selling like hot cakes all over the world and the factory secured massive orders and too that end, Tetsuo’s artistic endeavours, supported by his beautiful wife, was completed successfully.
    The film ends with a scene on a beach with Tetsuo recalling his marriage to his beautiful wife Sonoko and like all marriages, it proved to be a journey of trial and error, that she was beautiful, the perfect cook, pristine, modest, respectful and perfection in every way. Far too good for Tetsuo, which that narrator indicates that he agreed with but there was one more thing that he wanted to add and that only he knew was that Sonoko was “nice and horney as well”. Tetsuo concludes the film with the sentence, “That was my wife”.
    Sex, intimacy, eroticism and trust are important ingredients in successful marriages and this love story really deals with those facts. A beautiful film but I have some criticisms to make. They are as follows. Sonoko (Yu Aoi) as a character and lead player in the film is not developed or explored properly, the film focuses way too much on Tetsuo, (Issey Takahashi) the obsessive sculptor and designer who loses his understanding of love, sex, sexuality and eroticism in his quest to perfect he perfect doll. There is not enough on Sonoko’s understanding of love, sex, sexuality and eroticism. Her sexuality, her eroticism. We only see an idealised picture of Sonoko, the perfect wife and the film needed to have explored a darker side to her. Her erotic side. A sub plot of Sonoko during the period her husband neglected her deciding to venture back into modelling would have livened up this film. A five to ten minute scene showing Sonoko back in the modelling scene being asked to model sexy lingerie and then her being seduced by a photographer and having one night of unrestrained no bars hold passionate and erotic sex with another man. That would have cranked up the sex, passion and erotica dynamic. Some detail on her “secret” and the important experience she would use later to liven up her marriage after she and Tetsuo resolved their differences would have really have improved this excellent film.
    Every scene Sonoko (Yu Aoi) is in she has real presence but alas, she was not given the chance to develop her character above and beyond the stoic, loyal and perfect wife. Sonoko is put on a pedestal and really, at some point, she should have been seen having sex with another man and the scene as beautifully crafted as the sex scenes with her husband. The themes of loneliness, intimacy, sex, sexuality, eroticism and “horniness” would have been better explored. Yuki Tanada (producer and writer) missed a real opportunity there to liberate details about sex, intimacy and eroticism via Sonoko’s character.
    Ultimately, the sex doll both Tetsuo and Sonoko work to create is designed for lonely men, or men who have a fetish or are kinky. Or all three! Sex dolls can and never will provide intimacy, kindness, passion, sex or eroticism. For the users of such dolls, they will provide palliative relief only but for the lonely and for those who fear or cannot connect intimately with people, such dolls are the only option I guess if they want some form of sexual activity. To have developed a love story around the making of such dolls is extraordinary. Brave! Possibly outrageous but the film worked, despite its shortcomings. I loved it and it made me think about my marriage and the work place pressures I endured while I worked as a teacher in a college, in a previous life. Every married man who watches this film needs to think about his wife and the dynamic of his relationship. Marriage is about trust, respect, fairness and equality. More importantly, it’s about love, sex, passion and eroticism. We neglect these things at our peril. John Maynard Keynes, the famous Economist stated that “In the long run we are all dead” but while we are alive, we must all seize every moment, live every day as if its our last. Love is when a person knows all of your secrets even your deepest darkest most dreadful secrets of which no one else in the world knows and yet in the end, that person does not think any less of you; even if the rest of the world does. Sonoko eventually knew what Tetsuo’s dark secrets where and Tetsuo eventually knew hers and neither thought less of each other. A wonderful film.

    G. Phillips

  2. I do not think he was lively ever or enthusiastic about his work as he clearly mentioned in the beginning of the movie To be honest I did not understood his state of mind. He was detached and clueless as f***. Yes he had skills as sculptor but the movie had no point. And also in the present era of acceptance or anytime I don’t think there is a place for bulls***.

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