The late night Cinefamily screening in which I saw Audition, one of the theater’s programers opened by articulating his enthusiasm for this J-horror classic. I was immediately surprised to hear it categorized as such. Even without seeing this Takashi Miike work before, I was aware of its reputation. When I think J-horror I envision pale girls with long black hair crawling out of wells or ghosts prone to holding grudges. Audition is more in toe with the canon of high caliber psychological thrillers like Silence of the Lambs until it deviates with the final act. Not to devalue the Sadakos of cinema but the curled-lip smile of Asami as she imagines the fate for the unsuspecting protagonist is subtle yet more chilling than any cursed videotape. Miike lures you in, Dusk till Dawn style, with a tale of romance as a widower searches for a new bride using his post as a producer to interview young, attractive women. If it wasn’t for the marketing or at least the poster used in all the American publicity, this movie could contain the most ingenious plot twist in cinema history. Surprisingly, the knowledge going in that there’s a butcher apron wearing murderess to fear doesn’t hinder the impact as that scene, in general, is wildly unimaginable and the cryptic relationship/mystery elements work so strongly in its favor leading up to it.
The movie delves into many themes, more intensely than those of a similar vein which heightens its notability. Gender politics are a crucial and contentious aspect of the film. Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) has very specific standards he wants his future wife to be inline with which leads to this cattle call of ladies. Some of those demands are so this woman can resemble his past wife and others are unfair societal expectations. The fact that he desires someone “trained” in the arts because his wife was a singer is more acceptable than him only considering applicants half his age. He says a “trained” woman has confidence yet he falls for Asami (Eihi Shiina) who is portrayed as tepid and unassured. As a woman, I found the man enamored with her reserved, submissive demeanor infuriating only elevating my excitement when she reveals her true self who is loquacious and playful (when she’s torturing that is.) Miike toys with your empathy between these two lovers. Shigeharu uses a lot of slimeball moves like utilizing his position of power to meet girls but since the film is his perspective, we’re meant to forgive these indiscretions as it seems his minor deceit has led to a genuine connection. Asami who commits acts only a sociopath could execute, as the trauma of her childhood is revealed we understand her viewpoint on the situation. She was abused by older men who felt entitled to dominate her because of her innocence and vulnerable appearance. Shigeharu’s company releases a radio announcement to entice women to submit for this casting and they sell it on the idea of being a heroine, that being beautiful and prized is the greatest achievement. Heroinism in its truest sense is bravery and courage and like it or not that’s what Asami gains by retaliating against her aggressors, our protagonist just happens to be one of them.
There is a brilliant build up to the torture sequence that you’ve at least deduced by now is coming. The second act is a mystery a la Old Boy when after Shigeharu and Asami copulate for the first time, she goes missing and he must track her down. This takes him to some forgotten passages of Tokyo as he digs up her buried past. The imagery gets exponentially more graphic as we see a severed tongue here or a mangled foot there. We’re being pushed out of the comfort zone this romance plot has lulled us into. The scars of her past are revealed as the Shigeharu’s reality becomes nightmarish. The penultimate spectacle is a ghastly dream that Pinhead couldn’t even fathom which includes tortured prey from both main characters. It’s a hellish haunted house formed from Shigeharu’s subconscious and Asami’s reality as he sees the women he’s objectified and casualties of Asami’s wrath. All of these distortions and dream-like flashbacks lead up to this gruesome campaign. Unlike Martyrs whose second half detaches as it becomes unrelenting torture, Audition makes this transition seamless even if still egregious. Miike constructs a lot of the terror through audio from the screech of the bone penetrating wire that as it stretches is akin to nails on a chalkboard or as she inserts the thick acupuncture needles, you’re less paying attention to her actions and rather listening to the pops of the skin and muscle it sinks into. The primary score is a docile, generic piano riff that sounds extracted from a soap opera which is shed during the agonizing cacophony of murder tools mixed with screams. If anything it’s an effective film as the theater collectively squirmed and gasped at each advancing torment.
Miike is known for his no holds bar filmmaking. He’s about pushing the limits of what you can stomach but his explicit expression is never without purpose. Audition isn’t an empty narrative plugging in gore where it pleases. It’s an extreme approach to social constructs between men and women. It’s a revenge picture taken from the perspective of the victim and yet you can side with either party. The concluding moments of the two characters sprawled on the floor near death are completely connected on the same plane. It’s close to Misery if Stephen King had written Annie Wilkes in a way in which she’s not acting out due to obsession but as an accumulation of transgressions towards all women. There’s a weight of pessimism even when the scenes early on communicate otherwise. The film ends with an unknown outcome for both people. Shigeharu’s business partner remarks at one point that “Japan is finished” dooming his friend’s future and predicting the downward spiral the plot takes. The characters may be finished but Audition was just the beginning for Miike’s twisted career on an international stage.