I've had several horror movie buffs recommend Audition to me, but I haven't had the cajones to watch it until recently. I research movies almost as much as I watch 'em and what I'd read about Audition really turned me off of it. After all, I'm not really a fan of the "torture porn" sub genre, since I really don't believe that it takes a tremendous amount of talent to horrify an audience by having one character get medieval on another with a hot poker.
Well, for this month's annual horror film fest, I finally broke down and watched it. And, frankly, I'm very glad I did. Beyond featuring the most squirm-inducing climax I've ever seen in a film, Audition also happens to be an elegiac character study that asks some really hard questions about gender politics in Japan, the selfishness of relationships and the disconnect between the sexes in our modern world.
Ryo Ishibashi plays Aoyama, a businessman who recently lost his beloved wife. After many years of mourning, he's prompted by his son to start dating again. Looking for the perfect replacement, Aoyama heeds the advice of a film-maker friend and sits in on a cattle call. During the process he's smitten by Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), a quiet, reserved, dignified, young woman who's wise beyond her years.
Contrary to his buddy's advice, Aoyama impetuously calls her and they go out for dinner. Ignoring the evidence that Asami may not be exactly who she says she is, Aoyama continues to push their relationship too far, too fast. After he takes her away on a weekend retreat and they have sex for the first time, she vanishes, sending Aoyama on a desperate quest to track her down. But it's Asami who finds him, and not long after she's discovered the secret nature of the duplicitous "audition". What follows will surely test the mettle of even the most hardened horror fanatic.
In the level of cruelty inflicted on both the characters and the viewer, Audition is simply without parallel. In the first half of the film, Takashi Miike really lulls us into a false sense of security. It's cheerily lit with plenty of romantic musical swells and borderline comedic touches. All of these schmaltzy trappings grant us unspoken permission to go along with Aoyama's ethically shaky scheme of "auditioning" these women for sex. For the longest time it feels as if we're watching the inane sort of rom-com that Jennifer Aniston might subject us to.
But then some unconventional shoes begin to drop. It's revealed that a character reference for Asami "went missing" a year ago. The bar where she claims to work has been vacant for months, closed down under a veil of unpleasant circumstance. She tells a tragic story about abuse as a child. Despite all these warning signs, Aoyama is determined to make their non-existent relationship work for purely selfish reasons. Half way through the film, the cinematography becomes murkier and the musical cues sound strained. Since we're privy to more information than Aoyama, the inexorable crawl towards the climax is like watching a contemporary Greek or Shakespearean tragedy.
Very few films nowadays have the patience to lay the sort of ground work featured in Audition. Every little component that's been thoughtfully put into place over the film's nearly two-hour run time builds up to a climax that is almost unwatchable. I can't remember the last time I covered my eyes during a film, like a ten-year-old kid being forced to watch The Exorcist at gunpoint. It's almost as if Audition was made to horrify me, specifically (especially with all of that eye nastiness).
Both of the principal actors see the director's nihilistic vision through with grim resolve. In spite of his character's failings, Ryo Ishibashi has an undeniable hound-dog sort of charisma that will have you screaming at him to abandon his blind ambitions. Eihi Shiina initially comes across as the sweetest, most demure and quietly dignified woman on earth, but the girlish glee she exhibits in the mind-blowing finale is completely convincing and genuinely disturbing.
Let me state this clearly right now: watching Audition isn't a fun experience but it's an experience which very few films, horror or otherwise, could ever possibly hope to replicate or eclipse.