Synopsis: After his son Shige (Tetsu Sawaki) asks why he doesn’t remarry, widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) tries to find the right woman to court. Feeling too old to go through all that dating nonsense and looking to hedge his bets, Aoyama agrees with his pal Yoshikawa’s (Jun Kunuimura) suggestion to hold an audition for the heroine to a fictitious movie as a screen for auditioning possible mates. This will give the widower a chance to screen dozens of possible women in one go. As the process kicks off, Aoyama finds himself drawn to a striking but seemingly lonely woman named Asumi (Eihi Shiina). As they date, Aoyama’s friends find themselves wary of the woman, but the widower falls deeply in love. On a weekend away some time after meeting her, Aoyama proposes to her and then things go . . . a little twisty. Asami disappears, and while he tries to find her Aoyama learns Asami has a sinister secret history. When the two lovers eventually reunite, Aoyama learns firsthand how little he really knew about this woman.
Right up front, I have to say that AUDITION (1999) is among my favorite movies from the nineties and oughts and my absolute favorite from Miike’s rather large catalog of projects – the man just celebrated his 100th film last year with BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL(2017). AUDITION is an oddity in his backlist and it’s the film that seems to have the most enduring (if unfortunate) legacy thus far. This is not to say the movie is a perfect piece. It has its problems, but upon it release the movie stretched the boundaries of art house horror and was a tonic at the time to the deluge of all too similar ghost flicks I was seeing come out of Japan at the time [many were riffing on either RINGU (1998) or JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (2002)] as well as the tail end of self-referential horror flicks and the starting boom of horror remakes in the states.
AUDITION is an adaptation of a novel by Ryu Murakami, which will be considered on this site later in the week. That book is not exactly a traditional horror story, more of the sort of literary picking apart of gender politics that might come about if Joyce Carol Oates and David J. Schow had collaborated on a project, and the resulting film (from enfant terrible director Miike) is not easily categorized as the typical horror movie either. It is defiantly its own thing, for better or worse.
In fact, AUDITION feels like three movies jammed together into a single piece. The film starts out on a mostly warming and inviting foot. A romance (or even a romantic comedy) with some eerie touches to suggest what is to come. At about the midway point, the film transitions into a macabre mystery as Aoyama searches for his love and finds clues pointing toward her past. Finally, the movie veers into horrific territory in its hallucinatory and surreal Grand Guignol finale. This should not work at all and yet it does.
One less than successful area in the film is in the presentation of its timeline. There are several how many minutes or days just passed here queries, and while it is arguable that this is done purposefully to disorient the audience (as in the case when Aoyama wakes from a rolling in the sheets with Asami showing evidence of an apparent drugging) there might have been some better clues.
Unfortunately for some viewers, the film is not necessarily interested in giving its audience a full accounting/information about the story and the characters in it. This is particularly evident in the hallucinatory finale, which shifts gears through memory, imagination, and weird psychic clairvoyance to deliver some neat and disturbing images about people we have no real connection to. The result is nightmarish and disorienting in the same way a film like Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) is nightmarish and disorienting. There is a dream logic and a reliance on audiences to put together pieces on their own and to fill in blanks from their own imaginations. Some viewers will be baffles and some will greet this with enthusiasm. YMMV.
Miike’s career prior to AUDITION was mostly in the yakuza/gangster flick realm, delivering often imaginative mayhem with such titles as FUDOH: THE NEXT GENERATION (1996) and DEAD OR ALIVE (1999). He developed something of a reputation for prolific output (over 40 movies in the first 10 years of his career) as well as including gut wrenching and/or perversely funny elements into his films and some of this is evident in AUDITION. While shocking in their own right AUDITION’s more gruesome moments seem pretty tame compared to some of the nasty situations in his previous films. At the time, AUDITION also served as one of the gateway vehicles for the world to see some of the director’s other works. Some of those works are wonderful – I am a big proponent for THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS (2001), which features laughs, heart, and the best zombie musical number since the John Landis directed video for Michael Jackson’s THRILLER (1983) – and there are some that don’t work for me – alas, IZO (2004). However, the director is certainly accustomed to working fast and with low budgets and the movies he makes often have at least one or two mind blowing moments.
On the surface level, AUDITION seems to be a meditation upon family and relationships as well as power dynamics in how men and women meet and how they date. The clever script by Daisuke Tengan uses Murakami’s novel as a starting point and takes satiric jabs at numerous targets, including the Japanese film industry at the time and the auditioning process in general. The camera work is especially canny in revealing how many day-to-day activities can be boiled down to auditions or one sort or another. Camera placement in unexpected moments makes the audience vetters in an auditioning process. We watch, we question, we consider, and we either accept or turn away.
There is a warmth to Ishibashi’s portrayal of this protagonist. The man has great facial expressions and body language that apply extra layers of humanity to his role. Aoyama’s honest relationship with his son seems genuine as does the developing love with Asumi. There are lovely moments as well as the disturbing ones, and Ishibashi performs his emotional extremes well.
Eihi Shiina is a cypher through some of the piece and this is no accident. Her character is initially a vessel to be filled up with Aoyama’s desires for a new wife. Not until a late in the film revisit to certain scenes do we get to see the elements Aoyama overlooked. Here, and in the disturbing blend of child-like sounds (“Kiri-kiri-kiri”) with disturbing visual elements, we can see some of the range this actress offers. Asami has been broken by some bad history. Some really bad history. She seems all right, but there is something off with her below the surface. I really like how she wears boots in the final scene, which takes place in the Aoyama home. This seems to me a rather potent “screw you” since the socially acceptable behavior would have her leave her footgear near the door. It adds to the final scene’s perverse attractiveness, even as the contents repel. There is definite S&M coding to Asami’s wardrobe and actions in the scene, which would not be out of place in a Clive Barker picture.
One of the questions running underneath the film is: How well can we ever know another person? Aoyama thinks he knows this woman and soon learns he is wrong. When he hears a simple request from Asami to “Love only me,” he assumes he understands the intention behind that request and agrees. Little does he realize how wrong and ultimately dangerous that assumption is. There are quite a few instances of these assumptions showing up. Rei, the Aoyama household’s cook and maid, vocally wishes her husband was more like Aoyama – at least the Aoyama she interacts with. Aoyama thinks he understand his secretary, though when she shows up in his office with something deep to discuss, he assumes she just wants to go home for the weekend or is nervous about her upcoming wedding – in fact, the two of them might have had an affair before the film began. It seems like she is waiting for him to make the next move, and he is ignorant of her desire.
Only Shige seems to attain some level of understanding about another person. Specifically, he understands his father. Perhaps not completely, but enough to point out how he is blinded by love and needs to be careful. It is interesting but not terribly surprising that Shige therefore is a major instrument in the finale’s resolution: Father fears for his son, son fears for his father, and this is exploited by the threat Asumi has brought into their house.
Interestingly enough, the movie begins with pain and death and it ends with pain and death. There is a cyclical quality to the piece, of several characters walking predetermined paths again and again, unable to break out of their obsessions though they might fool themselves into believing otherwise.
The impact AUDITION has had upon American horror is an unfortunate one. It is one of the early cited inspirations for the sorts of flicks that have been collected beneath the “torture porn” umbrella label. While torture does play a role in the Grand Guignol finale, that is not the point of the movie. It is not even the most important factor. Many of these subsequent pictures miss the point of AUDITION. It’s not the Grand Guignol stuff alone. That is a part and parcel of everything that has come before. It’s disturbing to see, sure, but only because we have come to like the characters it is happening to. Flicks like SAW (2004) and HOSTEL (2005) and the lower tier affairs grab onto the grotesque without the character buildup, missing much of the inspiration picture’s point.
This is, of course, no fault of the original piece. AUDITION remains an interesting watch, quite unlike anything else that preceded it as well as what has followed in the 19 years since its initial release.
For readers in the east Texas: AUDITION is screening on Friday, May 25th at the Alamo Drafthouse in Houston (well, Katy). Come on and see it on the big screen!
Next week, we will take a look at DEADPOOL 2, which is in theaters now. Grab a collection, read up on the review Trista posted for the Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinness omnibus, and check it out in your neighborhood cinema. Then, come back here next time for our look at the merc with a mouth’s latest misadventure.