(1999) Directed by Takashi Miike; Written by Daisuke Tengan; Based on the novel by Ryû Murakami; Starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“All the people in this are just regular folks, but regular folks have dark sides, and here these dark sides are portrayed in kind of a bizarre way.” – Takashi Miike (excerpt from DVD commentary)
It would be an understatement to say Audition isn’t for everyone. Heck, I don’t know if it’s for me, but I can’t overlook its influence on modern horror or impact on director Takashi Miike’s career. Now, I’m not about to warn people to avoid this film – you know yourself and your limits, but it might be a good idea to be aware of what you’re stepping into. Bear in mind, the first half is relatively innocuous, but watch out for the second half, which has probably thrown more than a few people off guard.
Amidst the glut of late ‘90s Japanese horror movies, Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (working from a novel by Ryû Murakami) purposely intended to make something unique. They succeeded, with a film that at once embraces and defies the genre. Audition toys with its audience,* beginning as a light romantic story, and gradually devolving into a twisted, macabre tale. The plot experiences a radical structural change midway, as it shifts from linear to non-linear, and you begin to question the validity of the events depicted onscreen.
* In the DVD commentary, Miike explains, “They spend the first hour thinking it’s not what they heard about, getting more and more frustrated as it goes along, and then, suddenly, the plot develops in a crazy way.”
The opening scene introduces us to Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who spends some final moments in a hospital room with his dying wife Ryoko (Miyuki Matsuda). The story jumps forward seven years later, when he decides it’s time to remarry. Now middle-aged, and not quite savvy to the current dating scene, Aoyama wants to find the right woman, but unsure about how to approach it. With the help of his friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) they concoct a scheme to audition 30 women, under the auspices of a movie production. Aoyama is immediately smitten by one applicant, who seems to fit his criteria to a T. Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is attractive, skilled and demure; a trifle laconic, perhaps, but nothing out of the ordinary (or so he thinks). When Yasuhisa brings up the inconsistencies in Asami’s background, Aoyama chooses to ignore them, confident that he’s capable of handling anything. Aoyama’s horrific fate is more palpable because he’s such a regular, likeable guy (aside from a few darker impulses, hinted at during later scenes).
It’s almost impossible to imagine any other actress duplicating Eihi Shiina’s, chilling, hypnotic performance as Asami. She’s alluring and graceful, but there’s something impenetrable about her. Miike and Tengan leave clues about Asami’s traumatic history throughout the film, but the “facts” are littered with half-truths, and her true motivations are only suggested.* The scariest thing about Asami is the sense of calm she conveys during the most atrocious acts. Her refined sensibilities and lithe frame belie a limitless capacity for sadism (You’ll be hard-pressed to get the words “kiri, kiri, kiri” out of your head.).
* Miike stated Asami’s motivations remained a mystery to him, feeling it was more important for Shiina to understand her character.
Even for many seasoned horror veterans, the final third of the film can be difficult to watch. Asami’s intentions are made agonizingly clear, with a Grand Guignol display that’s sure to make some people reach for the “stop” button on their remotes. Shiina’s performance, coupled with Yûichi Matsui’s practical makeup, and sound effects by Kenji Shibasaki, contribute to a genuinely unnerving and stomach-turning experience. What’s Miike trying to say with Audition? It’s open to many interpretations, with enough ambiguity in the story for us to reach our own conclusions. Does Asami act out of malice, fueled by prior abuse, or her perverted version of love? Is the film a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of dating, or a commentary about the ritualized deceptions between men and women? Whatever deeper meaning it may hold, Audition does what thoughtful horror films do, reminding us we need look no further than the human soul to see where the monsters reside.
Once again, Audition proves Miike’s adeptness at shifting between various genres, while retaining an uncompromising vision. It’s definitely not suited for everyone’s taste,* and Miike is quite okay with that. While I might not be comfortable with everything (or anything) in some of his films, it’s comforting to know this prolific director hasn’t softened. For my money, I hope he never changes.
* In his DVD commentary, Miike recalled an incident during an American screening of the film when an enraged audience member confronted him, shouting “You’re sick!” before storming out of the theater.