The New Cult Canon: Audition

The New Cult Canon: Audition

"Where are all the good girls?" —Audition

My friend and current Esquire critic Mike D'Angelo once wrote that the ideal way to see Takashi Miike's Audition is to have a trusted friend that knows your tastes hand you an unlabeled copy in a paper bag, so you have no presuppositions about what it is and where it might be going. Sadly, just by including the film in Horror Month, I've already given some of the game away, and the majority of posters, box covers, and publicity photos do likewise. Still, I would strongly advise iron-stomached newcomers to Audition to take leave of this column now and salvage at least some of the surprises this nasty little film has to offer. And though you won't have a clean slate, you can at least appreciate what the experience might have been like if the DVD had arrived on your doorstep in a blank sleeve, like a gift from a mean-spirited prankster.

For the first 47 minutes, those familiar with Miike's work are actually in for a bigger shock than what happens in the final third. Though his output has slowed of late, Miike used to turn out films at a blistering six-a-year pace, and his unmistakable mix of extreme gore, surrealism, and black comedy put him at the vanguard of the emerging J-horror movement. The first Miike I ever saw was 2001's Ichi The Killer, and I remember vividly how it conditioned me to appreciate it: For the first few reels, I had to fight the urge to flee in revulsion, so disturbed was I by sights like a naked man suspended from the ceiling with hooks, while scalding hot oil was poured over his elongated body. But then, to my astonishment, I wound up laughing at the sheer outrageousness of it, and I became convinced that Miike had wanted to get me there all along. (As a symbol of his sick sense of humor, the press was issued a promotional barf bag.) Here was a true enfant terrible, and as subsequent films confirmed, someone who was eager to screw around with genres (e.g. the macabre musical The Happiness Of The Katakuris, or the spaghetti Western Sukiyaki Western Django) and keep topping himself.

In the context of his wild-and-woolly career, it's Miike's uncharacteristic restraint in Audition that startles long before he finally brings the hammer down. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Miike opens the film with the whipped-up emotions of a Japanese melodrama: As the music swells and shafts of light illuminate the scene, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) sits by his sick wife's bedside as her heart monitor slowly bleeps into flatline. In slow motion, his son rushes into the room carrying an art project with a note that reads, "Dear Mom, get well soon." Sorry kid, not going to happen.

Cut to seven years later. Pops is still a widower, and his teenage son is encouraging him to remarry while he has his health. Again, this is a very common scenario in Japanese melodramas (or melodramas of all kinds, really), except it's usually the aging father gently nudging his devoted grown child out of the nest. When Aoyama and his friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), both television producers, commiserate about his prospects over drinks, Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (son of the great subversive Japanese director Shohei Imamura) introduce a casual sexism that winds up looming large as the movie reaches full-scale dread and horror. Looking at a group of cackling young women, Yasuhisa laments, "Awful girls. No class and stuck-up. Stupid as well. Where are all the good girls?" While we get the sense that Aoyama doesn't quite think along the same lines, he nonetheless has very traditional ideas about the kind of woman who would make a good wife.

The "audition" of the title sounds like the premise for a too-cute romantic comedy: Yasuhisa has the idea of luring pretty young women to try out for the lead in a script about "a love triangle between a dancer, a patron, and a Down syndrome boy"—please make that movie some day, Takashi—but they're really auditioning for Aoyama. It seems like a recipe for wacky misunderstandings, but Miike plays it with a disconcerting mix of broad humor and unsavory exploitation. Sitting behind a desk, presiding over 30 would-be actresses/wives, Yasuhisa and Aoyama look like royalty plucking from the rabble, and their questions cross brazenly over personal boundaries: "Have you ever had sex with someone you didn't like?" "Are you interested in drugs?" "Did you ever want to work in the sex industry?" "What kind of men don't you like?" No wonder most of the women look so perplexed. Will they be asked to, you know, act?

When Asami (Eihi Shiina), the 28th audition of the day, genuflects her way into the room, she's the Central Casting model of a prim, subservient young wife of a traditional bent. Dressed all in virginal white, right down to her sensible flats, Asami impresses Aoyama with her modesty and deference, as well as a touching personal story about being classically trained as a ballet dancer until a hip injury struck her down at 18. "It might sound exaggerated," she says of the injury, "but it was like accepting death." That line sounds pleasingly subservient to Aoyama, who earnestly praises her for her courage, but Asami's dark eyes and eerily placid smile hint at the fact that pain and death are experiences she wants others to share. Nonetheless, she seems like a nice enough woman—though unbalanced enough to worry Yasuhisa—until Miike gives the audience the jolt of a lifetime:

From there, Audition officially becomes a Takashi Miike film, albeit one that's more dramatically supple and multi-layered than his usual midnight madness. Along with Psycho, Something Wild, and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise, to name just a few examples, Audition is one of the great gearshift movies, starting out as one thing and then transitioning on a dime into something else entirely. And like those others, the second half doesn't shed the first like a snake molting, it builds on what happened before, adding new meaning to scenes that might not have seemed that significant. It's possible, for example, to see Asami's actions as righteous blowback for the narrow thinking that led Aoyama to "cast" his future wife to begin with. Granted, Aoyama pays disproportionately for his sexism and deceptiveness—a feature of the female revenge story from Medea to Ms. 45—but he isn't entirely free from culpability.

Take the above clip: Aoyama labors for some time over whether to call Asami or end the casting charade and leave her alone. The way Miike stages it, she's almost like an evil robot waiting to be activated. Sitting prone on a bare floor, with nothing but a rotary phone and that laundry sack in the room, Asami waits with her head down and her long hair shrouding her face. If that phone doesn't ring, it's almost as if Asami will never come alive, like she's a nightmare that Aoyama literally calls into existence. In that sense, it's really his decision that causes this mysterious creature to exact unimaginable torture upon him. And Miike, committed sicko that he is, isn't entirely unsympathetic to Asami's point of view, even while he works to make her one of screen history's most chilling psychopaths.

The second half of Audition also finds Miike and Tengan piling so many flashbacks and dream sequences on top of each other that it becomes hard to discern what's really true and what's a manifestation of a character's bruised psyche. One thing that's almost certainly true: The burn scars on Asami's inside thigh come from her childhood dance instructor, whose teachings included branding her with a pair of a scalding-hot chopsticks. Also true: The same instructor is confined to a wheelchair after having his feet severed by piano wire. ("This wire can cut meat and bone very easily," she announces.) But when Aoyama takes Asami to a seaside getaway, where the two share some intimacies, things get a little more ambiguous.

From that point on, once Aoyama gets tangled in the sheets, it's suggested that everything that happens afterward could be some sort of post-coital anxiety dream. One of the great perverse moments of the film has Aoyama, in the middle of being tortured, waking up in that same bed by the sea, with Asami sleeping peacefully by his side. For a second, we can breathe a sigh of relief in the knowledge that Asami's deviance is just a manifestation of Aoyama's overactive imagination, his mind's attempt to fill in the blanks of her opaque personality. At the same time, the "it's all a dream" thing is the ultimate copout, too, so it's an even greater relief to discover that the vision of Aoyama laying peacefully with his young girlfriend by his side is, in fact, a dream, and his torment at Asami's hands is reality. Miike yanks the rug out twice, and in doing so, deepens the dread immeasurably.

As for the torture scene itself, many find Asami's diabolical use of acupuncture impossible to watch, and I'll admit to peering through webbed fingers. But am I alone in finding weirdly intimate, even erotic undercurrents to it? This isn't just Miike's idea of S&M;—the implements might work, but most S&M; scenarios don't start with one partner paralyzed—but Asami trying in her own way to secure Aoyama's love exclusively. (A little like what Julian Sands does to Sherilyn Fenn in Boxing Helena, except, you know, not lame.) Asami wants him to understand her pain and connect with it, and her gentle way with the needle, accompanied by the hypnotic words "deeper, deeper, deeper," draw him rather tenderly into a world of hurt. In the end, Audition is about romantic obsession: Aoyama's desire to cast his future bride in a very particular way recalls Jimmy Stewart sculpting the second Kim Novak in Vertigo, while Asami asks for his complete love and devotion, no matter if it costs him his son or (somehow sadder) his poor pet beagle. Miike ends with a shot of a lonely young Asami strapping on her ballet shoes, which shows you where his sick heart lies.

Coming Up:

Horror Month continues…

Nov. 20: Pulse

Nov. 26: The Devil's Rejects

Dec. 4: Fallen Angels

Dec. 11: Exotica

More The New Cult Canon