Why I Love… #10: Audition

Year: 1999

Director: Takashi Miike

Stars: Ryu Ishibashi (Shigeharu Aoyama), Eihi Shiina (Asami Yamazaki), Tetsu Sawaki (Shigehiko Aoyama), Jun Kunimura (Yasuhisa Yoshikawa)

Genre: Horror / Mystery

For me, it’s the greatest horror film of the last 20 years. Easy.

Of course, I didn’t always think so…

Truth be told when I first saw Audition I wasn’t so easily charmed. Its draining, difficult viewing. Like most people I came to it in the aftermath of Ring, looking for more of the same. Another slice of Japanese spookiness. At the time (and this still applies) most Western horror was stuck in the mud, stagnant and offering little that was new. The Japanese however were offering something a little more substantial, a little more cerebral. Their ghost stories were not about gratuity, but suspense, and they tapped into particularly modern fears (television in Ring, modern apartment complexes in Dark Water). And so to Audition

Audition is a different beast to the other Japanese horror movies that appeared around that time. More insidious. My initial dissatisfaction was born out of a mixture of boredom and revulsion. Audition’s power comes from asking its audience for an extreme amount of patience, before cunningly shifting gears and delivering something genuinely horrifying. For the most part the film doesn’t play as a horror movie at all, but rather a bland romantic drama.

It concerns forty-something widower Shigeharu Aoyama. Coaxed by his son and his business partner into looking for a potential new wife, Aoyama exploits his position at a television production company to arrange for an audition. But instead of looking for prospective female leads, he will instead be looking for a potential new partner. Early on in the process, and before the audition has even taken place, Aoyama singles out Asami from the applicants. Indeed he shows little interest in anything but finally meeting her; she is the only interviewee who he asks questions to. His mind is made up. Yet his friend and business partner Yoshikawa has reservations. Who is this woman? Where did she come from? And can she be trusted?

Director Takashi Miike – one of the most prolific directors of his generation – here shows fearsome restraint and focus. A number of his other movies are notable for their extreme content, their delirious range of styles and their hectic pacing. Audition takes place in a world far removed from those films. Long shots, dark lighting, a focus on the negative spaces between people. All of these things make the film feel studious, exacting, calculated. In order to instil this brooding feeling, Miike takes his time. Events unfold slowly, and if you’re not in the mood for it, Audition’s unhurried pacing might bring you to your knees. However Miike has an ace up his sleeve; the audience knows this is a horror movie.

And so we wait. And waiting is horrible in itself. I hate having to wait. Most of us do. But in the waiting the tension builds. Miike carefully sows the seeds of doubt in the audience. Asami is clearly not all she appears to be. We worry for Aoyama’s safety, whilst at the same time we wonder if he doesn’t deserve some form of retribution for how he has ensnared Asami. And just when our patience is stretched to its limit, Miike pulls the rug out from under us, and we freefall into a surreal world of dreams, nightmares, uncertainty and sadistic violence.

A lot of this  surrealism is Miike’s invention. Ryu Murakami’s book, upon which Audition is based, is a lean read. Short, and to the point, it travels a direct line from A to B. Miike’s film is not so easy. Frequently in the second hour we are forced to question what is real and what isn’t. Anyone looking to find resolution in the book can give up now; this deeper world of mystery is Miike’s own making, an addition to the story that opens it up to multiple interpretations. Ultimately this is the tale of a deeply wounded individual, of a man’s carelessness, and of a sad, horrible cycle of violence. Audition is one of the darkest films that may feature in this series of essays.

Asami is alone in the world and traumatised by past events. She asks but one thing of Aoyama; to love her and no other. Aoyama consents but does not treat the request seriously. He has a son, a pet dog. He loves them both. He cherishes his memories of his deceased wife. In doing so he breaks his promise to Asami, and unleashes hell in his own home. This late section of the film, in which Asami exacts her cruel punishment, is a masterpiece in sound design. What transpires, as gruesome as it is, is not especially graphic. Most of it is from Aoyama’s P.O.V., and as such the violence largely takes place out of sight. But the sound of it is unbearable. Miike, the modern godfather of the explicit, also knows that less is more. The effect is staggering. I still watch with a fist in my mouth.

Repeated viewings have continued to reward with Audition. It just gets better. Each time I notice something new. When Aoyama and Asami are talking in a restaurant, the venue itself changes in the middle of the conversation. In another similar scene all of the other patrons suddenly disappear. I can’t believe I didn’t notice the first time through, but these are just examples of a handful of subtle ways that Miike introduces a flexible reality that he eventually manipulates to masterly effect. With this movie he has essentially built a trap. He has baited the audience and led us to the film’s ultimate conclusion. The trick is that we never knew he was in control of us the whole time.

I’m not a fan of ‘torture porn’. The Saw and Hostel franchises hold no interest for me. Likewise you can keep your human centipedes. And though what Aoyama goes through in Audition is torturous, it is elevated above those more exploitative horror films. Audition earns its violence. Asami is not a monster, but an embodiment of hurt and betrayal. Aoyama might not deserve such a harsh punishment, but can Asami be blamed for her psychosis? Can a person be purely a product of their experiences? These are far harder question to answer. I like that Audition poses them. With Western horror now frequently so brainless, I rejoice that here is a beautifully made movie that asks you to think. Be warned, it’ll put you through the wringer though.

Kiri, kiri, kiri, kiri, kiri…

3 Replies to “Why I Love… #10: Audition”

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