There's a strange phenomenon afoot in Japan. Blanketed by loneliness and threatened by shifting gender roles, many men are forgoing traditional relationships in favor of silicone sex dolls. This may seem like a folly, but it's actually a cultural epidemic that could cost the country dearly. "Substitutes" outlines the consequences of this crisis through a series of intensely fascinating personality portraits.
The country's low birth rate reflects a lack of interest in human to human sexual contact. If this trend continues, it is estimated that the population in Japan could decrease by as much as 1/3 over the next three decades.
The film profiles several subjects who shed light on the psychological and societal motivations behind this curious lifestyle choice.
A sex doll vendor struggles to keep pace with increasing customer demand. Each doll is designed with as much realistic detail as possible, though the lifeless eyes and fixed features betray the appearance of a death mask. Regardless, his customers are confident that these creations can fill a void in their personal lives.
Another subject of the film - a 62-year old married man - carries on a relationship with his own inanimate doll, and speaks of the refreshing lack of complications such an arrangement entails. He sits beside her at a bar and orders her a drink, transports her by wheelchair to view a sunset over Mount Fuji, and carries on intimate conversations as though they are the only two people in the world.
Another retired man shows off the closet of dainty dresses he keeps for his trio of silicone companions. They provide him with a much needed reprieve from feelings of grief and isolation following the death of his wife.
These anecdotes aren't limited to the male population. The percentage of females who are interested in forming marriages and families is also dropping. Some own their own dolls and use them as a form of comfort therapy.
"Substitutes" does not impose its own moral judgement; it merely allows its subjects to speak for themselves. The viewer can determine whether this trend is a harmless band-aid on the agonies and emptiness of solitary life or a path to inevitable extinction.