Written by Daisuke Tengan
Directed Takashi Miike
Takashi Miike is a cinematic force of nature I stumbled across one night while sitting in the Belcourt Theater in 2001. I can’t remember the film I was waiting to see, but the trailer for Audition played beforehand. If you’ve seen this trailer, then you understand what I mean when I say it was one of the most jarring things I’d seen at the time. In a matter of a minute and a half, I was wholly intrigued about what this insane, bizarre movie was. A month or so later, I returned with friends and watched Audition. At the time, I didn’t think I fully appreciated it. My vocabulary and understanding of film were much more limited than when I recently revisited the movie.
Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a widower raising a teenage son while working in television production. He’s feeling lonely, having not had a relationship since his wife’s passing years earlier. One of his producer friends proposes that Aoyama hold a mock audition and use it as an opportunity to meet women. If he finds a woman he likes, Aoyama can tell her the production was called off, but he wanted to get coffee with her. It seems to go off without a hitch, and the man is drawn to the fragile Asami (Eihi Shiina). Asami is a former ballerina, her career-ending due to an injury. She is quiet and withdrawn but seemingly entranced with Aoyama. His friend is more suspicious and, as he calls her references, discovering not everything on the page is genuine. Aoyama has no idea how bad things will get as he falls down a dark rabbit hole and becomes the focus of a pattern of horrific violence and mutilation.
You need a strong stomach to get through the last 15 minutes of Audition. It will lull you into a false sense of comfort as most of the film is pretty mundane with some eerie or slightly unsettling moments. Audiences have read both feminism and misogyny from the film, which is a sign that it’s a pretty good movie, dividing viewers. My view of Audition is that it is very feminist but doesn’t frame our protagonist as some cartoon villain. Because the story is told from Aoyama’s perspective, you might think you’re supposed to be sympathetic to him. However, this is a revenge film from the antagonist’s point of view as Asami’s backstory is full of abuse and exploitation.
Aoyama goes about researching Asami’s past, leading him to a run-down ballet school. He meets the headteacher, who is now a wheelchair-bound recluse who takes great pleasure in reflecting on his sadomasochistic abuse of Asami when she was a child. The teacher is missing his feet; their exact reason for being removed remains a mystery. Later, we learn that Asami has mutilated a former lover who was cheating on his wife and abusing her. Her method was to take his feet, followed by three fingers, and then removing his tongue. Asami’s hyper-violent reaction isn’t meant to be realistic, rather an impressionistic response to the continual systemic exploitation of women that has happened for generations.
Miike is not a director interested in rote moralizing, but he will undoubtedly comment on what he sees going on in the world. Japan regularly objectifies and over-sexualizes women, just as the United States does, but each in their own way based on their cultural and historical backgrounds. I would argue Japan is much healthier in its approach to sex work, but the hierarchy between sexes is still troublesome. Miike’s cinematic language is always one of excess; he doesn’t just make a point; he makes it in the most spectacular over the top violent way possible so that you will never forget it.
Much like Pulse, this is a reflection on the loneliness of people in Japan. Aoyama is profoundly lonely, so we sympathize with his desire to find someone to be intimate with and possibly form a new relationship. But Asami is also lonely, and her state of being feels more urgent and horrific than Aoyama’s. Her one expectation is that he loves her more than anyone else, and that brings up the fact that Aoyama has a lot of people in his life he has varying levels of affection for. Who does Asami have? She’s been shaped by the abuse she’s experienced, starting at the hands of that instructor as a child, her psyche blending together the idea of pain and love. Aoyama values the superficial traits men traditionally look for in potential wives: submissive and beautiful. Aoyama is also a reluctant participant in the faux audition, with his producer buddy being the main instigator. Yet, almost as soon as Aoyama chooses Asami, his friend begins to suspect something is up.
Miike’s philosophy is summed up when a character remarks, “Isn’t it a terrible world?” He stands back and looks at Japan and sees something very twisted, violent, and evil. There’s certainly sympathy to be had for both our main characters, but in the end, the world just gnarls people, wounds them, turns them into ground flesh. Miike isn’t here to didactically explain how to fix it; he’s perfectly content holding up the mirror and showing us what he sees, what we often try to ignore. From his perspective, classifying mistreatment and abuse by gender is too easy. Humanity is just so awful and constantly turning on itself, creating monsters where there were none. And those monsters go on to make more. Audition is a profoundly nihilistic picture and significantly influenced horror filmmakers like Eli Roth. It’s a fantastically shot movie and one intended to unsettle its audience, one of the better of the J-horror crop.