Sex Dolls, Virtual Girlfriends, and the Fictional Ethnography of Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita

Nicolas-Xavier Ferrand

  • U+1F453-011




  • w.n. [J.-P. Robillard]

    Black print, 2,5 × 1 cm

  • Annuaire de l’Essonne, p.339


For several years now the artist duo Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra have been questioning the limits of the documentary and its connection with fiction.[1] If their method is amended each time in keeping with their research at any given moment, the backdrop remains. That is, the duo like to focus on a practice, a community, or a belief that places the human beings associated with that practice, community or belief in a certain marginal, even illegal state. Millenarians, Raelians, the new generation of hippies, or hardcore Sims or Second Life players who go so far as to build their existence around the game itself – the portrait of each of these communities depicted in the films is the result of long research and study, with the two artists often spending several months of their own lives in their company.

The display concept varies but always retains a subtle mix of documentary and fiction, a tension that is maintained either in preproduction (a film may alternate fictional scenes—shot using actors in the roles—with excerpts from documentaries filmed by the artists; I am thinking of Bonheur Académie from 2017)), or in postproduction, where the film editing only allows us to understand the subject fairly late as the film plays out. Generally viewers spend a good third of the exercise simply confronting existential questions before coming to understand that the problems being shown, which correspond to the classic typology of the contemporary malaise (solitude, anxiety, impression of being useless or not up to facing the world), have found their solution within practices that are disapproved of by society. Generally won over at first by sympathy, even compassion, viewers are quickly plunged into a paradox, i.e., they want the best for the character being filmed but cannot decently tolerate the solution hit upon.

Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra’s latest two projects, Tsuma Musume Haha (2019) and Petit ami parfait (2020), are no exception. For several years now the particular situation of male-female relationships in Japan has captured the artists’ complete attention. Instances of involuntary celibacy, virginity after the thirty-year-old mark, and the chronic impossibility of meeting others have been significantly increasing over the past few decades. Faced with such a situation, the men of Japan have been trying to reestablish contact with females through roundabout means. Many male Japanese have thus chosen surrogate partners, whether more or less realistic sex dolls, or computer programs. Others, sometimes the very same men, have developed fetishistic penchants that are catered to in a vast video market specifically targeting their demand. These two phenomena feed into the artists’ two most recent films. Spanning a number of years, their exploration has seen them acquire, for example, a surprising DVD collection with a fetishist bent, although the term doesn’t necessarily seem like the right one. One DVD features scenes of women’s hands doing simple actions, using a calculator, crumbling cigarette ash, arranging potato chips in an orderly pattern—all of it presented with the minimal staging that recalls the kind of presentation seen on a TV shopping channel. Another shows young women induced to race all over empty urban areas before placing, out of breath, a sensor on their chest that transmits their accelerated heartbeat. A third offers a collection of short films showing young women at the hairdresser’s. A fourth features a young woman stuck in a taxi because of heavy rainfall and probably filmed by the driver without her knowledge. No interaction, simply a faraway look in her eyes. A fifth video focuses on the sandaled feet of female passers-by, all secretly filmed. A sixth, visually more ambitious and ostensibly scripted, is called Giantess and presents giant women (although dressed altogether normally) wreaking havoc on a cardboard city peopled with Lilliputian men, imitating the best bits from sentai (tokusatsu genre) like Bioman. These different finds are edited into the films just like the artists’ own sequences, which involved their filming players of LovePlus, a girlfriend simulator on Nintendo DS that enables the player to develop a long-term relationship with a virtual female character. The success was such that seaside resorts even offered “couples trips” to attract players. Another study led them to follow the owners of sex dolls in their daily lives. The final videos, which push the cursor a little bit further into fiction, suggest a dystopian situation in which “real” women will have completely disappeared from Japan and men are forced to find replacement solutions with dolls and games, or by occasionally dressing up as female manga characters themselves.

The films have the look of a fictional ethnographic study of Japan taking into account a true context, namely that men increasingly have a hard time approaching women, creating an abnormally high level of celibacy and a birthrate in free fall. While many factors are involved, social competition, which regulates sexual competition, is sidelining lots of young men, who, unable to carve out a place for themselves that would enable them to marry (get into a good university, then get into a good company, in order to represent a “good match”), start a relationship with fictional characters.[2] The distance between men and women can be seen in the “fetishist” videos, Kinoshita points out. There women seem like “rare birds” that men are only able to capture fleeting details of, hands, feet, heartbeats, and so on. Moreover, the DVDs’ imagery, packaging, and titles are perfectly devoid of the erotic. They are literally all about a fascination with daily gestures that appear to belong forever more to a forbidden kingdom. The actual sentimental connection with a character in a game or a doll is therefore akin to an act of re-socialization simply taking shape outside the traditional frameworks of thought. As White and Galbraith point out, Japan as such forms a special field of enquiry since individuals have been exploring for many years the question of affective technology. Where “our” robots and AI are created to carry out precise tasks, “theirs” act as vectors of emotion and affection. AIBO dog robots, for instance, were eventually viewed as members of the family and bonzes had to offer them funeral ceremonies as well, while more recent attempts like Palro, Roborin, and Azuma have been specifically designed to develop an emotional bond with their owners.[3] So there isn’t exactly a social withdrawal but rather a reconfiguration of this socialization, which is now extended to nonhumans. This doesn’t mean, however, that the violence of the objectifying gaze isn’t operating. The dolls do indeed serve as sexual partners with no will of their own, and the videos replay voyeuristic episodes that sometimes verge on customer prospecting of the “hunter before the safari” type, to borrow the two artists’ own terms.

This attempted socialization may be a function of the particular condition of objects in Japan. Although it would be foolhardy to put forward an anthropological reading of contemporary Japan in just a few words, the long animist culture of Shintoism surely plays some part, as does the analogism of Chinese Buddhism.[4] These forms of thought, contrary to modern Western naturalism, are at ease in granting interiority to nonhumans and by extension objects. The land, stones, rivers, and mountains all teem with spirits and ghosts, so why not video game cartridges and dolls? In a recent issue of Techniques & Culture, the authors pointed out a resurgence of—or resistance to—the vernacular practice of the ex voto, in which objects become the repository of a desire and even a certain “agency”[5] in Alfred Gell’s understanding of the term. Via the object, the person is connected to something or someone, but this connection takes a material shape. It isn’t pure belief but an activation in the world. This particular form of interaction is stamped by a horizontality of uses. That is to say, rather than express a vertical belief (the praying individual to God, such as the monotheisms suggest), the vernacular practices of the ex voto type, which are often a legacy of polytheism or pantheism, call for a collective act. A “fetishist-animist” DVD, designed specifically for a community of enthusiasts suspected of being sufficiently broad to warrant commercial distribution, recalls in this regard anonymous offerings such as coins planted in trees or messages hung from branches or tucked into hidden recesses and nooks of architectural structures. It is an invitation to (re)create a community, whereas a persistent feeling of solitude is settling over the contemporary world. It is the rather odd possibility of a form of polyamory, “Indeed, the once suicidal and embittered Honda has done so himself, forming a long-term relationship with a ‘two-dimensional’ character that he identifies as his “wife” (yome). Furthermore, he points out that this need not be private or exclusive, as multiple iterations of a character exist and a multitude is in love with her, which brings them together in shared affection.”[6]

This transformation of an odd object into a socializing impulse is the very focus of the investigation Kaori Kinoshita and Alain Della Negra carry out in many of their films. The players of Sims or Second Life, the Millenarians and Raelians, the new hippies, and the New Age animists are simply outcasts of modern society who have reestablished a connection with the world through roundabout means, a connection whose pejorative tenor is partly explained in light of our own conventions of normality.[7] Our slow discovery of their suffering and the surprise that greets the means they employ to mitigate it spark a malaise in viewers, who recognize first of all their own feeling of inadequacy vis-à-vis the world, before having to face the dizzying effect of recognizing as well the similarity of needs and methods among marginal or illegal communities. Everyone is looking for someone to talk to, share activities with, mutually love and help, etc. Seen as abnormalities at first glance, their solutions then seem like parallel paths to commonly accepted solutions: sports, sophrology, recreative sex, anti-anxiety drugs, classes in theater, team building, communal gardening, so-called third places, and so on.

Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita’s latest two films are part of a broader examination of the expansion of the domain of the living and, beyond that, reality. In one rather touching moment from the film, the owner of a doll who seemed like a rather repugnant man up to that point confesses that he has genuine feelings for his partner, affection that is no different from the affection that is felt for flesh-and-blood humans. He adds that his perception of the living has grown to include nonhumans as a whole, and that even mosquitoes, which he once killed without second thoughts, are now viewed with a certain tenderness. In a rather troubling way, losing a connection with a part of humanity has opened for him, it seems, a broader acceptance of existence. These latest films then, along with the earlier ones, enable us to redefine reality. It is often presented as being the opposite of the virtual and fiction. Here the protagonists forge emotional bonds with fictional beings where earlier pieces showed relationships taking shape between humans in the realm of fiction (Second Life, Les Sims, etc.): “The articulation of this process might be best captured by Philip Rosedale, creator of the social simulation Second Life, who proposes in the documentary Life 2.0 (2010) that ‘things are real because they’re there with us and we believe in them. If they are simulated on a digital computer versus simulated by atoms and molecules, it doesn’t make any difference to us.'”[8] These relationships lead to concrete acts, viz., marriage, couples trips, funeral ceremonies.[9] This reinterpretation of the fictional lies at the very heart of the duo’s approach. Developing an almost parodic form of Jean Rouch’s ethnofiction, Kinoshita and Della Negra reveal the deceptive character of the concept of documentary as an expression that sticks to reality in comparison with a work of pure fiction. Mixing their images with those of others, “documentary” parts and “staged” parts, and playing off the kind of discovery that is specific to editing, the two artists sow a beneficial confusion among our conventional and approved approaches to reality.

Alain Della Negra and Kaori Kinoshita’s work is singular in several respects. This two-headed approach, as it were, has assumed the dual identity of these two artists. It yields an oeuvre that offers us multiple simultaneous contradictory perspectives on the difficult human condition. Their art has no preconceptions, no biases, and is driven only by the search for humanity in its most polarizing niches. The images are occasionally difficult and the responses are never simple. The authors conceal nothing of the unbearable reification of women, just as they dismiss or disregard none of the deep distress in which these men languish, some of them reduced to eating their bento in front of DVDs featuring sham girlfriends dining opposite them and making small talk. Their ethnographic fictions only anticipate a situation of social tension revolving around hyperconsumption of individuals, in which emotional bonds with objects appear to offer a credible alternative. Here the object eventually becomes the locus for the embodiment of a relationship with another, which leads to a form of stigmergy, that is, the trace of one encourages the trace of another. The films play out as dystopian science fiction. Women haven’t really disappeared from Japan yet, but men have well and truly begun to replace them. The ancient animism has come to mitigate in a pretty shaky way the social destruction wrought by capitalism. And yet the solution is right there. Embracing the living in a more inclusive manner, seeking out interlocutors over and over, treating them as though they were another self as Aristotle, speaking of friendship, puts it— this is the price then at which the catastrophe foreseen by the films will be avoided. In other words, when women cease to be viewed as objects, and when nonhumans, including objects, see their emotional capacity finally recognized.


Nicolas Xavier-Ferrand (2019)

Invitation made on the occasion of the exhibition Futomomo (cur. Franck Balland)


[1] I have already dealt with this question elsewhere in greater detail. Interested readers can consult the following article, “Alain Della Negra et Kaori Kinoshita, le Vrai du Faux,” Horsd’oeuvre 38 (Art/Flux/Documentaire), Dijon, Interface, 2017, 8. Online version here.

[2] This was notably touched on with Tōru Honda; see Daniel White, Patrick W. Galbraith, “Japan’s Emerging Emotional Tech.Anthropology News website, 25 January 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1070.

[3] White, Galbraith, ibid.

[4] For a deeper discussion of the notions of animism and analogism, see the work of Philippe Descola and in particular Par-delà nature et culture, Paris, Gallimard, 2005.

[5] Pierre-Olivier Dittmar, Pierre Antoine Fabre, Thomas Golsenne, Caroline Perrée, “Un matérialisme affectif,” Techniques & Culture 70 (Matérialiser les désirs. Techniques votives), Paris, EHESS, 2018, 13-41.

[6] White, Galbraith, “Emotional Tech,” op. cit.

[7] With the exception of the Raelian movement, several members of which were convicted of sexual acts with a minor, whereas the sect embraced nearly total sexual freedom.

[8] White, Galbraith, “Emotional Tech,” op. cit.

[9] In the same issue of Techniques & Culture, furthermore, the anthropologist Agnès Giard points out that it is common in Japan to perform a funeral service for someone who has died before being able to marry a fictional male or female partner so that the deceased cannot come back to haunt the family.