Takashi Miike has made some amazingly good films, and he's had a few stinkers too, but regardless of how you feel about the majority of the output from one of Japan's most prolific directors, it's pretty hard to deny the power and the sheer slickness of what is probably his best known film to date, Audition.
Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) has recently lost his wife. Now a single father, he spends much of his time at work but one thing is very obvious – he's lonely. Soon though, his son and his co-workers and even his maid all encourage him to start looking for another wife to fill the void left in his life. He's unsure of himself, however, and isn't exactly the type of guy to go out and hit the clubs to pick up chicks. He's rather shy and more than a little awkward around the fairer sex so his friend, a producer at the TV station where he works, comes up with the idea of having an audition – they'll set it up so that the women who come in think they're trying out for a part in a television movie when in reality, they're being checked out as possible hook ups for old Aoyama.
After suffering through a few girls who show up to strut their stuff, Aoyama becomes instantly smitten with the lovely and rather introverted Asami (the beautiful Eihi Shiina). Her quiet and low key demeanor appeals to him and she seems genuinely flattered by his attraction and his very positive comments towards her. He thinks he's found the perfect woman for him and the two soon begin dating but once they do, it doesn't take Aoyama very long to find out the hard way that there's something very, very off about Asami, and… well, I can't say anymore without ruining it. Let's just say that this film has one of the best endings to come out of a horror film in a long, long time.
Miike lets this one build really slowly but once it makes that ninety degree turn and starts spiraling into madness you know you're in for the long haul and everything that came before it starts to make sense. The movie starts off as a romantic drama with heavy soap opera overtones for a reason and that's to sucker-punch you in the lower abdomen when you least expect it. In hindsight though, if you pay very close attention to the way that it all pans out, the signs are there. Clues and subtle hints are dropped throughout the film and while not everything is made one hundred percent crystal clear when the end credits roll, more attentive viewers will be rewarded for their toils. This isn't the type of film you can put on in the background while company is over (nor is it one that you'd want to) – it demands your close and full attention even during the slower moments.
Taking some visual tips from Davids Cronenberg and Lynch, Audition is not only a masterpiece example in building suspense but it's also a fine looking film. Hues of red are used throughout the movie to create an atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of Dead Ringers at times, and other colored gels provide lighting effects that bring to mind moments in Mulholland Drive or Blue Velvet. Miike's film is uniquely his own, however and while some of the visuals do appear to have been influenced by North American filmmakers, this one is a uniquely Japanese tale. Aoyama's view of the women in his country sets him up for a fall right from the start, and while it's not fair to say that he gets what he deserves, his narrow minded views and his dishonesty in terms of how he meets Asami in the first place don't speak to kindly of his high moral standing.
Based on the novel by Ryu Murakami, Audition takes the preconceived notions of the format that a horror film needs to follow and tosses them out the window. It sneaks up on you in the best way possible and twists your brain around its finale whether you want it to or not. At times poetic and sad and at times completely gratuitous and repulsive, it's a strong film that works just as well cerebrally as it does visually and in turns raises as many questions as it answers. We don't learn everything about Asami's background, but we learn enough. We don't learn everything about Aoyama's background or his son's story, but again, we learn enough. While you might have questions about the character motivations in the last half of the movie, it does provide the viewer with enough minutia to allow he or she to come up with their own interpretation of just what exactly is going on. Bordering on the surreal at times, this is one that will get under your skin and stay there.
NOTE: See this film in its uncut version. Seeing the R rated version that has been carried in the past by certain rental chains is a grave disservice in that you'll see the ending and you'll get the idea behind it all but you will be missing the complete impact of the final scene based on some small but important cuts made to that one specific moment in the film. If you've seen the film before, you know what I'm talking about and if you haven't, seek out the unrated version which is thankfully contained on this DVD from Lion's Gate (the previous release from Chimera was available in both uncut and in R rated versions).
There's good news and bad news about the transfer on this release. The good news is that the 1.85.1 widescreen image is enhanced for anamorphic displays. The bad news is that the transfer is not flagged for progressive scan playback and as such, you're possibly going to see some ghosting depending on what kind of equipment you watch this one on. It should also be noted noting that this transfer appears to have been the victim of a poor PAL to NTSC conversion. The film in its uncut form on the Chimera release ran 115 minutes. On this disc, also in its uncut form, it runs just over 110 minutes. As is typical with PAL to NTSC conversions, there's some blurring and some artifacting on the image pretty much all the time. This proves to be both annoying and distracting.
As far as the image itself goes, the picture quality is pretty decent. There's a decent level of both foreground and background detail present in the image and the colors come through nicely in the film (the reds and the blues look fantastic) which is important and skin tones look lifelike and natural. Black levels stay pretty strong despite compression artifacts and mild pixelation in the darker spots on the picture. Edge enhancement is present but mild and it doesn't get out of control at all, thankfully.
If this one had been flagged for progressive scan playback and didn't suffer from the blurriness of the standards conversion, it would have definitely rated higher but as it stands now, this is still not the definitive edition of the film on DVD, at least in terms of the video quality.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is nice and clear, as are the optional English and Spanish subtitles that are supplied for the film. Surrounds are used properly and don't overpower the mix, they simply add the atmospheric sound effects in the right spot at the right time and bring the musical score up behind us in a few spots to enhance the mood. The dialogue in the film is crisp and clean and clear and it comes through without any problems. There are no issues to report in terms of hiss or distortion and overall, this mix is just fine. An English closed captioning option is also provided.
First up is a roughly four minute long introduction from Takashi Miike who compares Audition to other Japanese genre films and proclaims that this one isn't a horror movie per se, at least not in traditional terms. He sets up the film nicely without really spoiling anything in case you haven't seen it before, and it's interesting to have him put it into context.
A scene specific commentary from Miike is also available that plays out from chapter sixteen through to the end of the film. Carried over from the previous region one release, once again Miike isn't subtitled but spoken over by an English translator. While the content on this track is good, the format is terrible and this is a really distracting and at times horribly annoying way to present a commentary track. Considering that no one in their right mind would watch the film with the commentary playing out overtop of the end of the film without having seen the film first (at least I'd hope not), I'm not sure why they didn't subtitle it instead, but that didn't happen for whatever reason – in this case, likely because it was probably more convenient to just carry this one over the way it was from the last DVD. At any rate, Miike discusses the ending in a fair bit of detail and this track is full of spoilers so please be sure to have seen the film all the way through at least once before tinkering with this track as it is worth listening to in spite of its technical oddities.
Also carried over from the last DVD release is a video interview with Takashi Miike. Once again, he's not subtitled but spoken over by a translator and the same complaints I had about the commentary ring true for this supplement as well. That issue aside, this is an interesting interview as Miike discusses his background and career as a filmmaker as well as plenty of Audition specific facts relating to how they adapted the book for the big screen and how different people have reacted to the film.
A second interview with Ryu Murakama, the other of the novel on which the film is based, also runs roughly twenty five minutes in length. The constantly smoking writer discusses some of the changes that were made on the story's journey from novel to film and how he feels about them, as well as what he thinks of working with Miike and of the final finished version of the movie itself.
The last of the video featurettes comes in the form of a clip from Bravo's 100 Scariest Movie Moments in which the ending of Audition is discussed and praised for it's originality and audaciousness. Don't watch this one before you watch the film itself – the less you know going in the better (and on that note, way to partially spoil the ending of the film with the cover art and the menu screens on this DVD! Blah!).
Rounding out the extra features is a still gallery, a booklet containing liner notes by author Chris D., and trailers for a few other unrelated horror DVD releases available from Lion's Gate - Juon, The Eye 2, Infection, and American Psycho. Oddly enough, the trailer for Audition itself is not included.
Audition is one of Miike's strongest efforts as a filmmaker so far in his career. It's suspenseful, it's beautifully shot, and it contains two fantastic performances that suck you in screw you over with a shock ending that really delivers. Lion's Gate really dropped the ball on this transfer, however, and it's a shame that the interview and commentary with Miike are still spoken over and not subtitled. That being said, this version is in print and really the only alternative for those who don't already own the out of print Chimera release or have access to a region free player. This release comes recommended for that reason and on the strength of the film – sadly, not on the strength of the transfer.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.