AUDITION (1999)

audition

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by Alex Mullane.

The early-2000s were the era of the Japanese horror movie. Films like Ring, Dark Water, and The Grudge occupied the supernatural part of the genre, while movies such as Oldboy and Battle Royale ramped up the human horror; presenting scenes of extreme human violence that pushed the boundaries of censorship and, arguably, bad taste. The influence of these films spread to numerous Hollywood knock-offs and remakes (with varying success), and their influence is still keenly felt in cinema today. One of the films to kick-start this boundary pushing J-Horror movement was Takashi Miike’s Audition — a film that has now been repackaged for Blu-Ray.

Warning: spoilers for the conclusion of this movie below, so only continue reading at your own risk.

The plot concerns Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a widower after his wife’s death seven years ago, being encouraged by his teenage son (Tetsu Sawaki), to move on and find new love. Out of the dating game for so long, Aoyama’s film industry friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) suggests setting up a dummy audition process: on the surface, for a role in a film that’ll likely go unmade, but in reality, a chance for Aoyama to single out a potential new wife. It’s not long before Aoyama hones in on Asami (Eihi Shiina), but there’s the suggestion that all may not be what it seems with this timid young woman…

Initially, Miike’s film seems like a rather straightforward drama. While the audition process itself might be somewhat questionable, Aoyama isn’t a clear-cut bad guy, and between Ishibashi’s affable performance, his genuine affection for Asami, and her own obvious vulnerability, you’ll want to see the two of them hit it off. They seem to need one another.

The story unfolds in what might be considered slow fashion by Hollywood standards, with Miike letting scenes breathe through plenty of unconventional shots. The camera is often placed in the corner of a room, or at a remove from the action, and it’s rare for a shot to track or follow what’s going on — rather, the camera stays fixed, and the action takes place within its confined frame. At times this gives Audition’s scenes the feeling of a stage play, and at other times a fly-on-the-wall documentary vibe — emphasised by the relatively low production values and grainy footage.

audition

But there are gradual hints of something amiss. Asami sits by the phone waiting for Aoyama’s call, perched in a curious, hunched stance, in a flat that’s otherwise empty, save for an ominous and mysterious sack in the background. The light is haunting, and the image of Asami waiting, perfectly still, seemingly for days on end, like a predator waiting to strike, is enduringly creepy. But the reason Audition is so revered and reviled doesn’t become apparent until the film’s final half hour.

Asami, it’s slowly revealed, is a sociopath of the highest order. A truly damaged woman, she’s an abuse survivor who spends her days torturing the men unfortunate enough to cross paths with her. Shiina’s performance flips from mousy and vulnerable to destructively cruel and gleefully psychotic. She’s entirely terrifying.

audition

What follows is an extended sequence of physical torture that’s as troubling as anything you’ll ever see on film. Flashbacks to Asami’s other victims are nauseating (particularly with the reveal of what’s in the aforementioned sack…), while her actions in the present are very difficult to watch. The childlike glee and twinkle in Asami’s eye as she enacts these horrors makes it all the more disturbing. It’s thirty minutes of breathless revulsion that you don’t want to look at but somehow can’t turn away from.

But as captivating as this later sequence is, what’s fascinating about Audition’s dizzying crescendo is that none of it may be happening at all. Miike’s screenplay keeps it extremely ambiguous as to whether Asami’s horrors are real, or whether they’re all in Aoyama’s head.

As he lays with his new young lover, are the horrors we see just a nightmare of Aoyama’s? Could this just be what’s running through his head — a horrific what-if, worst-case scenario? A manifestation of the guilt he feels over the seedy, deceitful audition process? Or perhaps it’s the guilt of moving on from the memory of his dead wife? Is it all a result of his fear of commitment; his fear of giving himself so completely to a woman he knows very little about? Are these his fears of hurting what is clearly already a very damaged woman even further, all flipped back on himself in a troubling fantasy/nightmare?

audition

The final sequence presents scenes jumbled out of time, characters out of place, and edits that don’t make sense if this is truly reality. And yet, the film doesn’t end with Aoyama waking up, wiping his brow, and carrying on as if it were a dream. That suggestion comes earlier, but the horrors continue on past it, almost dismissive of that notion. Perhaps the idea of the dream was the red herring — a man in excruciating pain simply retreating into a fantasy, willing it not to be real; all a dream.

But regardless of whether the monster version of Asami is real or imaginary, the provocative nature of this film is undeniable. Points about society’s attitudes towards women may be particularly resonant in Japan, but can also be applied universally, and through Aoyama and what happens to him — and/or what he thinks and fears might happen to him — the audience is prompted to reflect on their own actions and attitudes.

Audition doesn’t want to say what’s real. The evidence is present to support either theory, and it’s up for the audience to decide which they’d rather believe; and that’s the real triumph of Miike’s infamous film. Whether in the visceral depiction of graphic violence, or in the self-reflection the thought of it provokes, it’s something you’ll be thinking about for a long, long time after it finishes. Audition is certainly not an easy watch, but the growing distance since its release has done absolutely nothing to diminish its power.

Cast & Crew

director: Takashi Miike.
writer: Daisuke Tengan (based on the novel Ryu Murakami).
starring: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura, Miyuki Matsuda, Toshie Negishi & Tetsu Sawaki.