Takashi Miike’s tale of a businessman’s quest for the perfect bride retains its horrifying power.
Along with Hideo Nakata’s Ring and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, Takashi Miike’s Audition was one of the main films that introduced audiences in the UK (and subsequently the world) to the ‘delights’ of what would become known as ‘extreme Asian cinema’, thanks to Tartan Films, who released all three as part of their ‘Asia Extreme’ line. Prior to Audition, Miike was best known as a director of low-budget yakuza thrillers that were frequently violent and occasionally bizarre, making him an unusual choice to handle a deliberately paced and cinematically restrained film, but he showed himself to be fully equal to the task. Audition is based on the novel of the same name by Ryɼ Murakami, and was scripted by Daisuke Tengan, the son of Shōhei Imamura, one of Japan’s most respected directors. Prior to his own career, Takashi Miike had spent several years working under Imamura as assistant director.
Ever since the death of his wife seven years earlier, middle-aged businessman Aoyama (Ryé Ishibashii) has divided his time between caring for their son and work. At the prompting of his now-teenage son, he decides to marry again, but has little patience with (or experience of) the protracted dating and mating rituals of today’s youth. Instead, Aoyama and his colleague Yoshikawa in the media industry (Jun Kinimura) decide on a different method of meeting a woman that meets his modest standards (intelligent, artistic, refined, demure etc). They put out a casting call on the radio, asking for new would-be actresses, ostensibly to star in a forthcoming TV drama. Aoyama will read through the applications and pick the ones he’s interested in, while Yoshikawa looks for potential stars. Their selections will be invited to an audition. If all goes according to plan, Yoshikawa will find himself a new star while Aoyama can get a step closer to finding an ideal wife.
At this point first-time viewers will no doubt be wondering how Audition came to be categorized as ‘extreme’, and how Miike earned a reputation as a controversial, transgressive director. Certainly the comic audition montage (complete with the jaunty pop accompaniment) gives you the impression you’re watching yet another romantic comedy about a man going to ridiculous lengths to find love. There’s even a stock character from such films: Aoyama’s secretary, who clearly has feelings for her boss. True to type, he is completely unaware of this, immersed in his absurd quest for the perfect woman. There is no doubt therefore that Miike and Tengan intended us to feel that we are indeed watching a light-hearted romantic drama, for the first third of the film at least.
Once the character of Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina) is introduced, things begin to change. On the surface Asami is everything Aoyama is looking for, but we are slowly given glimpses and snippets of information that suggest something may be very wrong with this young woman. The man she gave as a reference on her application form disappeared mysteriously, while a previous employer was brutally murdered. None of this fazes Aoyama at all, since he’s already decided she is the woman he wants to marry. Against the advice of his friends, Aoyama continues his courtship of the beautiful, strange Asami.
In its final third Audition takes a turn into horror territory, with scenes that retain their power to shock even in our desensitized era. How much of what we see is actually real is not entirely clear, since certain scenes do appear to take place in Aoyama’s head. It has been suggested that it’s all a hallucination, brought on by guilt over his disloyalty to his dead wife. This is not supported by the rest of the film, however; the final scenes are clearly real. Audition has also been interpreted as a criticism of Japanese male chauvinism, as represented by Aoyama’s rigidly old-fashioned and objectifying view of women. Unfortunately, any serious points Miike and Tengan might have been making about Japanese masculinity and patriarchy are heavily undermined by the fact that in no way, shape or form does Aoyama deserve his fate. He’s certainly guilty of deceit and manipulation, but his comeuppance firmly outweighs his crimes. It doesn’t help that Asami is a two-dimensional character. Her difficult past and Aoyama’s schemes would certainly leave her with a right to be deeply hurt and angry. But the real source of Asami’s anger is an utterly unreasonable demand that makes it impossible to sympathise with her, unlike the used-and-discarded women of Fatal Attraction and Play Misty for Me. Having carefully manipulated the audience throughout, Miike provides an extremely memorable crescendo calculated to shock and horrify, something that few films manage to do quite as well as Audition. It might not be a noble ambition, but on its own terms Audition can only be considered a great success, as well as an essential Japanese horror film.
Watch the trailer: