286. AUDITION (1999)

Ôdishon

It’s a pretty strange script, he must’ve been taking some really bad drugs when he was writing this stuff.”–Takashi Miike on Daisuke Tengan’s Audition script

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PLOT: Seven years after the death of his wife, Shigeharu Aoyama decides it is time to marry again, but he has no idea how to meet an appropriate mate. His movie producer friend comes up with a plan: they will hold a fake audition for a movie role where the widower can secretly interview dozens of women. Aoyama becomes smitten with shy, mysterious Asami and asks her out; but when she disappears just as things start to heat up between them, he goes on a quest to find her, only to discover that his ideal love may not be the innocent creature she seems.

Still from Audition (1999)

BACKGROUND:

  • Based on a novel of the same title by Ryū Murakami.
  • This was only Eihi Shiina’s second acting role, and her first lead, after a career as a model.
  • Along with than the relatively tame 1998 drama Bird People in China, Audition was Takashi Miike’s breakout film, after specializing mainly in yakuza pictures seldom seen outside of Japan.
  • Audition was ranked #21 in Time Out’s 2016 List of the 100 Best Horror Films. and included in Time’s 2007 Top 25 Horror Films.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Poster and cover images always feature Asami holding a syringe, a moment that hints at bad things to come. But the weirder images that sticks in my mind are the shots of the mysterious beauty sitting in her apartment, head down, hair covering her face, telephone within arm’s reach. The implication is that she has been sitting there, motionless, in a trance for the entire time she has been offscreen, just waiting for Aoyama’s call. Also, she has something lying in the background. Something wrapped in a burlap bag…

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Thing in the bag; disembodied tongue; torture hallucinations

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Takashi Miike’s most accomplished film, Audition initially shocks because of how normal it seems, before the director slyly pulls the rug from under our feet and launches us headfirst into a nightmare of pain. Fortunately, a perfectly positioned 13-minute hallucination sequence gives this movie the surreal hook (meathook, as it were) needed to elevate this master of the perverse’s best-made movie onto the list of the weirdest movies ever made.


Trailer for Audition

COMMENTS: Audition‘s broad outline is this: an older man falls for a woman for superficial reasons (her beauty and submissiveness), gradually uncovers a history of abuse and psychological baggage, and the relationship falls apart because she is too damaged to love properly. It’s the stuff of Hallmark channel housewife dramas, and for the first two thirds of the movie, it almost plays that way. When Aoyama’s film producer friend comes up with the idea to host a fake audition so his shy and lonely widower buddy can secretly scout for potential brides, Audition almost becomes a romantic comedy as it turns into a montage of kooky rejects, giving silly answers to goofy questions and twirling batons in a talent competition as light chamber jazz sets a frivolous mood. Aoyama becomes infatuated with one contestant, the shy and mysterious Asami, and nervously pursues an affair; she hints at a longing for a deeper connection with the older gentleman, and they begin to develop a real relationship that is sweet despite it’s suspect origins. In fact, up until her sudden disappearance around the halfway point of the movie, Miike only drops the slightest hints that this will be a horror feature at all. He’s playing the long game, and he does just enough to keep our interest through those opening reels, so he can reel us in with a conclusion that shatters the comforting normality of the film’s long opening gambit.

Audition is Takashi Miike’s most assured film, the masterpiece is his massive oeuvre. He holds the audience comfortably in the palm of his hand: he alone knows where he is leading them, and his manipulations are deliciously wicked. Miike loves to play with endings and sudden reversals of tones at the very end of his movies, as he does in Dead or Alive (also from 1999) when his brutal yakuza film climaxes in a  bizarre apocalyptic fantasy. But here, the final shifts seems of a piece with previous developments, deepening the themes. The wrenching Brechtian dislocations he uses in other movies often result in non-endings that feel like jokes at the audience’s expense. Here, there are enough warnings that the romance is doomed, and the final betrayal seems less of us surprise sprung on us than the only way the story could logically end. When Aoyama encounters the wheelchair-bound stepfather who refuses to answer his questions about Asami’s whereabouts, but instead accosts him with vague leering taunts about whether he’s had sex with his stepchild, we know that he should follow the advice of his producer friend and turn back; but we also know that he won’t. Nor do we want him to. Like Aoyama, we need to see the mystery through to the painful end. Driven by his own romanticism and obsession, he sets off on a path that will lead to the discovery of Asami’s true nature. When he enters the slanted ruins of the Stone Fish, the bar where Asami may or may not have worked, we get the first mention of murder. Our expectation that something terrible will happen grows slowly, although we cannot be prepared for the lengths to which Miike is willing to go to follow through on his scheme.

The brilliance of Miike’s ending is broken into two parts. Of course there is the unforgettable gruesome denouement, which is sometimes credited with launching the “torture porn” subgenre (although brutal, it is far less exploitative and celebratory than that label suggests). But even more important and audacious is the thirteen minute surreal prologue that precedes it. Aoyama takes a sip of drugged booze, makes some strange faces, stands and wobbles, and then is launched into a woozy dream sequence that replays and reconfigures the events of the movie in ominous ways. It starts with what appears to be a flashback to one of the couple’s early dates, but the subject of conversation is different. Scenes shift between flashbacks that may be real, or may be imaginary, and characters appear where they should not, could not be. Faces replace each other within the same scene. We see events that clearly never happened, and Aoyama even visits Asami’s secret inner sanctum. Everything is mixed up between reality and fantasy, and Aoyama sees revelations of things that he could not possibly know, but all of the weirdness relates to the psychological truth of the characters: Aoyama’s sexual guilt, Asami’s seething resentment. Then Aoyama tumbles, and wakes up. (It’s probably a coincidence, but this entire hallucination sequence takes place between the time Aoyama loses consciousness and the time he hits the ground, just as ‘s Blood of a Poet takes place in the instant it takes a chimney to crumble and fall to the ground).

It pays off to go back and watch these scenes a second time and break them down. They reveal new information, though how reliable it is is anyone’s guess. But the scenes add depth to both the main characters, as well as setting up a psychological foreboding that will soon be incarnated in a grisly physical reality. It is an ecstatic prophecy of a coming pain that seems inevitable in retrospect once we put the pieces together. And as Aoyama is undergoing his torment, he continues to hallucinate, this time allowing the audience (and himself) a brief reprieve, along with a dim, desperate hope of escape. The injection of surrealist fantasy here serves multiple purposes: it increases our knowledge, it ups our unease, and it expands the moment from its needle-thin focus on the particular and the physical into a more universal trip into the unconscious.

Asami’s final words to Aoyana are almost certainly a fantasy. She repeats lines from early in their romance, heart-tugging words of love and longing that suggest an escape from the loneliness of both their existences. This ending adds a final layer of ambiguity—because Aoyama should be, to understate things dramatically, mad at her. But he’s still bound up with the romantic illusion: his belief that he could start again and rebuild his life after the death of his wife. He is more devastated by the destruction of this illusion than he is be the mutilation of his body. Asami is simple. It’s fruitless to judge her, because childhood abuse twisted her into a monster who’s not responsible for her crimes, who’s even incapable of understanding that they are crimes. Rather, it’s the moral complexity of Aoyoma that stings. He is a likable character, and we relate to his long bereavement and his melancholy affection for his dead wife. Does he deserve a comeuppance for pulling his audition stunt? Yes. Is the response he suffers proportional? God, no. The disturbance Audition engenders comes from the fact that the protagonist is a good man who commits bad acts—as all of us who think ourselves good people sometimes do—and that he is punished hellishly out of proportion to his wrongs. Karma exists in Audition but, ironically, it is so cold and cruel that it makes us long for the comfort of a random, indifferent universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…editor Yasushi Shimamura pulls such smooth stunts with the time frame that auds can’t be sure where they are in the sequence of things — or whether some gruesome events are really happening at all. Most intriguingly, pic may be either a harsh critique of possessive love or a gory celebration of outright misogyny.”–Ken Eisner, Variety (contemporaneous)

“It turns into a hallucinatory nightmare of female revenge that will pin back the audience’s eyelids.”–Bob Graham, The San Francisco Examiner (contemporaneous)

“… slips between alternate realities without succumbing to the old ‘it was all a dream’ cop-out. The line between reality and fantasy eventually disappears, and the effect is of a seamless, continuing nightmare, from which there is no escape.”–Dennis Lim, The Los Angeles Times (DVD)

IMDB LINK: Audition (1999)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Midnight Eye Interview: Takashi Miike – 2001 interview largely centered on Audition (conducted on the set of Happiness of the Karakuris)

Audition – Asian Wiki – Basic cast and crew info (with hyperlinks), a trailer, and eight stills

Revenge is Sweet: The Bitterness of Audition expert Robin Wood’s impressive article on the film (teasing out its similarities to Vertigo) is the best introductory analysis available online

The Neo-Phallic Mother, Capitalism, and Takashi Miike’s Audition – To oversimplify, a media-studies professor argues that Asami represents capitalism in the film

Exclusive: Director Richard Gray talks the “AUDITION” remake – 2014 interview with director tapped for an American Audition remake in which he tries to head off the obvious objections

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

“Audition” – Ryū Murakami’s original novel

“Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike” – Tom Mes’ overview of Miike’s career for general audiences includes a chapter on Audition (which is also featured on the cover)

DVD INFO: Audition has been released in multiple versions over the years, but for Americans the best bet is Shout! Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray (buy). It features an all-new commentary track from Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan. A bonus DVD includes two trailers and over an hour’s worth of interviews with the two leads, plus minor players Renji Ishibashi (the man in the wheelchair) and Ren Osugi (the briefly seen Shimada). It also includes a booklet written by Tom Mes. Lionsgate’s DVD (buy) is another option, but if it’s a DVD you’re after you might as well look for a used copy of the 2002 Chimera release (buy), which can be had cheaply and includes extras like limited Miike commentary (covering the film’s last act only), an interview with the director, and an interesting but out-of-place history of Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater. Finally, there’s Arrow’s 2016 region B Blu-ray offering for Europeans and those with universal players (buy). It features two commentary tracks: one from Miike and and Tengan (presumably the same as on the Shout disc) and a new one from the ubiquitous Tom Mes. There’s also a new introduction by Miike and a new interview, along with all the actor interviews from Shout’s disc, and a new video essay from critic Tony Rayns.

If you’re too confused by all those options and don’t need commentary or interviews, you could just watch it on-demand (buy or rent on demand).

(This movie was nominated for review by “Wormhead,” who simply said that it had a “pretty disturbing torture scene.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “286. AUDITION (1999)”

  1. A lot of the movies covered on the List are also on Complex.com’s “most disturbing movies” list: A Clockwork Orange, Un Chien Andalou, Eyes Without A Face, Natural Born Killers, Antichrist, Sweet Movie, Gummo, Begotten, Pink Flamingos, Eraserhead, Visitor Q, and now Audition.
    Not that there are no disturbing films that are not weird(like The Snowtown Murders) or weird films that are not disturbing(like Yellow Submarine), but a truly strange story has a power to explore nightmarish regions that few others will touch.
    Anyway, I’ve awaited this review for awhile and am delighted for the honor Miike gets here!

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