Late to the Party: Audition

If the point to a Late to the Party article is to discover something afresh, then I might have missed the mark with this. I knew all about Audition since it became a cult film festival hit in the VHS, 35mm and dialup days. I knew about the genre gearshift and the infamous horrific second half. But does knowing about it prepare you for the raw, insane viscera of a Takashi Miike film? Cards on the table, despite only having seen one of his offerings-that being his samurai remake 13 Assassins-I knew all about the notoriously perverse cult director. His disturbing propensity for incest, insanely graphic violence, and sexual depravity, as well his superhumanly prolific 10+ films a year shooting speed (He’s the only man alive who can make Roger Corman look like James Cameron.) have been the talk of the net since, well, this movie put him on the map, despite having been active in the industry in japan for years prior, particularly in the straight-to-video V-cinema scene. As James Cromwell says in L.A. Confidential, I have the eye for his movies, but not the stomach. I’m generally just not much for extreme cinema, be it 70s grindhouse fair, the New French Extremity, Hong Kong Category III films, the so-called “torture porn” movement, or much else, even when it’s well-made, simply because I have no stomach for it. But I decided to give this one a shot, willing to check it out on the basis of it being intelligent rather than just brutal, or so I told myself. So, what did I think? Read on….

For a good time call!

There’s no way to describe the impact this movie has without spoilers, so I’ll just come out and say what I think. For those not in the know, Audition is the tale of a lonely widower named Ayoama, who stages the fake titular audition nominally to give a pretty girl a part his nonexistent movie, but really to find an attractive new mate. He settles on Asami, a beautiful young ballet-dancer with a history of brutal abuse who hides dark secrets and a deep psychosis, leading to a twisted chain of events. Whereas the character in the novel is a striking beauty though, the movie, despite casting a model, goes to a more flawed, almost sympathetic character. At least until the end. Based on a novel by Ryū Murakami (Himself also a filmmaker.) and adapted by screenwriter Daisuke Tengan, the son of Palme d’Or-winning art-house legend Shōhei Imamura, Miike’s producers (Apparently partly financed as a Japanese-Korean co-production, though the cast, crew, and setting are all completely Japanese.) took the script on in hopes of chasing in on the J-Horror craze (I remember it back in the early 00s; it was a fairly big deal.) kick-started by Hideo Nakata’s famous Ring in the late 90s. Unlike Ring, Audition is not a movie they found it’s way to a US remake, and you’ll soon see why… The studio was apparently shooting for something without a supernatural element, and neither Tengan nor Miike were known for horror films. Miike shot the movie in a scant three weeks, which is still a week more than his usual shooting schedule. The film gained a huge amount of attention outside of Japan at various film festivals, including some notorious walk-outs, leading to Miike’s still-growing cult reputation. I heard about it on the nascent Internet in the 90s, but avoided it because of its infamously brutal finale.

As Brittany Spears once quipped, “I’m not that innocent.”

As a piece of filmmaking, Audition is very effectively made. Whereas most of Miike’s films rely on comic book splatter and abstract aberration to the point of absurdity, there’s nothing remotely funny about the violence in this film. The movie brilliantly draws itself taught as tightrope, mercilessly building slowly, almost agonizingly to its final 20 minutes. Whereas the novel explicitly spells out many elements which the film only hints at first, the movie is a relentlessly slow build. Starting as a low-key, slightly melancholy romance, then a meditation loss and guilt, it slowly mutates into a reflection on the featured psyche of its villain before descending into an almost unbearable finale of violence and torture. Some critics looked at it as presaging the so-called “torture porn” films which flooded cinemas in the wake of Saw in the mid-00s, but what’s really scary about the film is that you can’t just dismiss it as grotty sleaze. It’s a film with too many ideas on its mind. Whereas James Wan and his imitators seek only to titillate desensitized nerve-endings, Miike is relentlessly patient. The movie was shot incredibly quickly, and feels like it, but it doesn’t look cheap either. Like Roger Corman, Miike makes a lot out of a little, turning minimalism into a virtue. Audition isn’t a static film by any means, but it’s not kinetic either. It’s not elaborate, but it hits viscerally hard.

Kiri, kiri, kiri….

I can’t imagine I’m the first person to have noticed this, but thematically, Audition actually remember me quite a bit of Gillian Flynn and David Fincher’s Gone Girl. They approach it from different angles, but both pieces are about male fears of female sexuality as it turns vengeful against a dark patriarchy. But it has a less satirical, and much, much more visceral edge. Miike’s favorite film is allegedly Starship Troopers, and it’s easy to understand why. Very much like Verhoeven, he’s a deeply smart and darkly perverse man whose films are too difficult to digest and too intelligent to ignore at the same time, and he shares Verhoeven’s glee in violence on his commentary track. And whatever one thinks of Audition, there’s undeniably a dark intelligence behind it. Like Flynn and Fincher’s work, Audition has been labeled as both a misogynist work and a feminist one, and I can understand both sides of the argument. In the age of online dating, Audition could be viewed as a cautionary tale; one of the most brilliant shots in the film is it’s reveal of Asami’s insanity as she sits by the phone, her head hung, lookin reptilian and demonic, grinning evilly as she finally gets a phone call while someone or something thrashes in a sack near her. While the performances are all universally effective, the obvious standout is Eihi Shiina, a model who had never acted before, as Asami. Her demure surface hides her terrifying true face as she takes girlish glee in violence, some of which Miike, in a brilliantly unsettling touch, depicts more with sound than with visuals, although there’s plenty graphic to look at as well.

There’s a family resemblance here.

Some have taken against its portrayal of its central female character as a complete psychopath who turns the objectification of the patriarchal world in which she turns into a grisly acts of revenge. She severs feet to make sure unfaithful men don’t “run away “ constantly saying they’ve “failed to love her.” I don’t claim to know Japanese society, but even as a broader piece of social commentary, Audition works remarkably well. In the novel, the film’s central character pines for an older Japan, it understanding the fragmented, postmodern world on which people like his son live, constantly seeking stimulation, never satisfied. We learn in highs the book and the film that Asami was a victim of child abuse, and she transforms from a victim of the so-called “male gaze” into a vengeful force against men. But I think labeling the film as misogynist or misandrist is too narrow, since it’s about broader sociological forces which transform people, at first forcing them into specific narrow roles until they lash out and become destructive, even monstrous as a result, forced too hard into these roles until they becomes something horrific and terrifying. There’s a psychological edge to the film which gives it an an intelligence which can’t be easily dismissed.

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

Takashi Miike biographer and Japanese film expert Tom Mes argues that the film is misread in such contexts, as both characters lie to each other, and that the film is about misunderstanding, although I still think if he’s right, it’s about misunderstandings between the sexes. If, as he suggests, the male viewers identify with Aoyama and the female viewers with Asami, then in the end, it pulls the rug out from under both. The list of possible interpretations for this film is long, and my review is merely a drop in a bucket long since overflowed. So, without further ado, I was knocked out by the film. I can’t imagine even being blindsided without knowing its dark secrets as Miike takes the audience on a slow descent into hell, but even knowing the the plot twists and shocks, the film still feels like a sucker punch, the work of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing and masterfully plays the audience like an orchestra. I’m still reticent to check out more of the director’s body of work, simply because as I said, I don’t know if I can handle it. But there’s no denying this is the work a filmmaker who’s got more on his mind than his notorious reputation suggests. Kiri, kiri, kiri.

Audition is available for free on Kanopy and for free with ads on Tubi, and the English-language translation of the audiobook is available on Audible and at bookstores. But if you check out either, don’t say I didn’t warn you. And don’t blame me if your feet feel funny.