From Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie to Dario Argento’s Inferno to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, the best horror films often pour out of the unconscious. For all the craftsmanship that went into these films, they tap into something primal, whether it be a fear of the unknown, one’s own body, or the nastier undercurrents of the collective id.
Many recent Asian films specialize in tonal shifts, but Audition uses them to get at something truly threatening. It’s a perpetual morphing machine: a portrait of middle-aged loneliness evolving into a love story that becomes a mystery and spirals into Grand Guignol, with one segment that might be the horror equivalent of the trip scene in 2001.
Takashi takes his extremes to the limit. The first third of Audition is an Ozu-like examination in which a widower tries to rejuvenate himself. Its unsettling undertones become apparent only in retrospect, though there’s something vaguely creepy and confrontational about Miike’s close-ups, in which characters often stare directly into the camera.
Audition begins with Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) at his wife’s deathbed. She dies, whereupon an intertitle tells us that seven years have passed. They’ve been lonely ones: Aoyama’s young son is now a teenager with a girlfriend of his own. He points out that his father is starting to look old. A full-fledged midlife crisis ensues, with Aoyama deciding to cruise for a new wife by setting up auditions for a role in a movie that will never be made. After interviewing 30 young women, he settles on Asami (Eihi Shiina), a former ballet student forced to retire by a hip injury. Having rejected candidates for answering yes to questions like "Are you interested in drugs?" and "Have you seen any Tarkovsky films?", he’s impressed by Asami’s demure, virginal demeanor. The two begin dating, but Aoyama ignores signs that Asami may not be as innocent as she seems, even after discovering that her résumé is full of half-truths.
Aoyama and Asami go on a weekend date to a hotel, and she disappears in the early a.m. Around the same time, Audition becomes an unreliable narrator, taking some major stylistic leaps (such as using incredibly bright gels). Ultimately, the film goes haywire, sidelined by a montage that recycles previous scenes (sometimes with different dialogue) and cuts between conversations at two different restaurants as if there were no gap between them. If these scenes are dreams or hallucinations, the dreamer seems to have access to both Aoyama’s mind and Asami’s. The finale’s gruesome imagery is made a little easier to take by hints that it might be a fantasy, but the psychological torture is worsened by the flashbacks to Asami’s memories of childhood abuse. When the hall-of-mirrors effect sets in, the line between reality and dreams becomes irrelevant: both are nightmares.
Audition links the physical abuse Asami suffered at her ballet teacher’s hands with the "innocent" lies Aoyama told her in order to get a date. He’s no villain, and the film never mocks his quest for love. If he crosses the line into exploitation, his actions stem mostly from loneliness; if he puts himself in danger in his pursuit of her, he may be acting out of unacknowledged guilt. But Asami is no conventional villain either. As awful as her actions are, she retains a degree of sympathy: even at its most violent, her character maintains a perverse innocence. Both characters are victims who wind up hurting each other, but Miike makes it plain that everyday life is torture for Asami. No matter how nice Aoyama is, he’s the latest in a line of men who exploit her. After all, he has no interest in helping her as an artist. Like the other men who’ve held out this promise in order to seduce her, he winds up paying.
In an interview for the Guardian last March, Gavin Rees asked Miike why a country as safe as Japan produces so many violent films and comic books. Miike responded, "I suppose film takes up the slack of what is not expressed in society. Obviously it is good that Japan is a safe place, but I wonder if there is something unnatural about the placidity of Japanese society." The first half of Audition represents this placidity; the second half shows the consequences of the polite misogyny that helps keep it afloat. Although it was made two years after Cure, the gods of timing sent Audition into New York theaters five days later, and both films suggest that the surface calm of Japanese life is a thin façade. The anger behind Audition is certainly feminist, but this label may be too limiting for such a corrosive film.