One of the best things about the horror streaming service Shudder is the depth and breadth of its catalogue. It features not only low-budget films that have been overlooked, but also classics of the international horror canon.
Takashi Miike is an incredibly prolific director, having helmed more than 90 films since he began his career in 1991. One of his most well-known movies is 1999’s Audition. As a newcomer to Miike’s filmography, I felt it was time for me to finally tackle a film that often appears on lists of the greatest horror films ever made.
As Audition opens, the audience is introduced to Shigharu Aoyama at his wife Ryoko’s deathbed, in a touching and sobering scene. To make things even more upsetting, the couple’s young son Shigehiko arrives at the hospital room just after his mother has passed away. He doesn’t even get to say goodbye to her or show her the craft project he’s made for her.
Flash forward to seven years later when is revealed that Aoyama has never remarried. He and the now-teenaged Shigehiko go fishing and the young man tells his father that he prefers “real life girls to imaginary big fish.” Although this scene ostensibly portrays the close relationship between the two, it also foreshadows the main narrative thread of the film, the titular audition.
Aoyama tells his friend and colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa that his son thinks he seems “dispirited” and should remarry. Yoshikawa, a film producer, concocts a scheme in which the pair will hold auditions for an upcoming film and that will give Aoyama an opportunity to have his pick of women from whom to choose. Although the two men seem affable enough, the idea of having a wife-choosing contest seems creepy, even though reality television was already an international sensation at the time Audition was made (the novel upon which it was based was published in 1997). This uncomfortable venture is made even more so when Aoyama compares it to buying his first car.
One of the applicants, the 24-year-old former ballet dancer Asami Yamazaki, catches Aoyama’s eye. Although he has allowed Yoshikawa to ask all the questions at the audition up to this point, he addresses her directly, much to his colleague’s confusion and consternation. Aoyama decides to pursue Asami outside of the audition process, despite Yoshikawa’s warnings that he wasn’t able to talk to any of the references she provided and suspects she may be lying about her past.
Even if you didn’t know of Audition’s reputation as an extremely disturbing horror film, there is something about the expression on Yoshikawa’s face that should give the audience pause. This sense of dread is heightened considerably when Aoyama calls and we see the interior of Asami’s apartment. She is sitting on the floor with her head down, with what appears to be a large sack of laundry in the background. When the phone rings, the sack moves and makes a loud noise, indicating that there is a person inside.
Aoyama soon embarks on a relationship with the young woman. He tells his son that he’s got a girlfriend and confesses that he plans on proposing to her after they return from an upcoming weekend getaway. Yet that romantic weekend doesn’t exactly go as planned. While Aoyama nervously chatters about his plans for the couple’s activities, Asami undresses, gets into the hotel bed, and begs Aoyama to love only her. The couple seems like they are about to have sex, when suddenly the scene cuts to Aoyama alone in bed and awoken by a ringing phone. It’s the hotel calling to ask if he’ll be staying on since his “partner” left. Aoyama is confused and he tries to find Asami but has no luck. He does, however, meet a very odd man in a wheelchair and later hears about a vicious murder that took place at the bar where Asami claimed to work, but which has been closed for a year. Aoyama returns home, pours himself a glass of liquor, and then passes out on the floor after having a bad reaction to something in his drink.
As if Asami’s mysterious bag and recent revelations about her troubled past weren’t already creepy enough, Audition’s narrative begins to fracture and from then on, the audience is never sure what is really happening.
There are flashbacks to previous scenes with added or different dialogue, all of which changes the nature of the audience’s perception of Aoyama and Asami. Is Aoyama having hallucinations or is Miike showing us the “real” sides of his main characters? Asami is a monster, but perhaps she only became that way because of the way that men have treated her. Similarly, Aoyama initially appears to be a nice guy, but what kind of “nice guy” auditions wives? The film also implies that the reason for all the awkward moments between he and his secretary are due to a failed sexual relationship between the two.
For most of the movie, the characters are filmed in long or medium shots and in some cases, male and female characters are separated by a large distance. When Aoyama and Yoshikawa are discussing Aoyama’s romantic prospects, there is a table of women in the distance whom the pair casually but vociferously criticizes. There is another woman at the bar who seems to serve no narrative purpose except to show their lack of empathy with women. The room in which the audition is set up shows a wide gap between Aoyama and Yoshikawa’s table and the chair in which the women are asked to sit. Even the scenes that show Asami and Aoyama’s romance place the couple at a distance from the camera.
This is all a noticeable contrast to the infamous torture scene, when Asami drugs and paralyzes Aoyama, sticks him with acupuncture needles, and slices off his right foot with wire. Her face is shown in close up, while she gleefully tortures her prey, something which seems more intimate than the moments the couple shared in the hotel room, especially the one where Aoyama stares at Asami, dressed in white and against the backdrop of a blue sky and fluffy white clouds.
Audition’s status as one of the best horror films ever made is well-deserved. Miike begins the film with a tone that feels like the intro to a romantic comedy and slowly introduces incongruous or shocking elements until the film’s conclusion, one in which explicit torture and eventually death are shown in uncompromising detail. The film is an obvious influence on more recent rape revenge films like The Soska Sisters’ American Mary; Mary’s black rubber apron, gloves, and medical bag all made their appearance first in Audition.
Regardless of whether viewers think Audition is a cautionary misogynist tale, a feminist fable, or something in between, it’s unlikely that anyone who has seen the film will ever forget it.