When Audition starts, we wonder what exactly we're looking at -- if it's going to be Wes Craven's Music of the Heart or David Lynch's The Straight Story all over again. The first scenes feature a somber, intimate hospital room where father Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) and his young son say goodbye to their recently-deceased mother. It cuts several years down the line, where the father/son dynamic has strengthened into something special amid their pain. But there's something not obviously missing from Aoyama's life, as pointed out by both his son (Tetsu Sawaki) and his work colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura): he needs a new wife, while he knows very few eligible bachelorettes.
Here's where the title comes into light: the rusty, woman-shy Aoyama and Yoshikawa cook up a fake audition for an acting job, bringing them all up front-and-center in a way that'll give Aoyama a good look at a large array of (presumably) attractive women. Director Miike uses this opportunity to comfortably lure us into an upbeat mood, watching as the two men ogle and critique several candidates in a fashion that's pretty comical. At least, it's all fun and games until the delicate and understated ex-dancer Asami walks into the room -- and Aoyama becomes smitten with her emotional fragility. At this point, the film's almost begging us to accept its tranquility head-on.
Miike's at his best in Ichi the Killer and Gozu when he's operating with outlandish gore and surrealist imagery, both of which play vital yet camouflaged roles in Audition. The graceful drama almost never intersects with his other-worldly darkness, his diverse strengths instead being scattered throughout the slow-burning suspense in provocative fashions. This allows for a gentle, ambient style of terror to slowly creep behind his audience, masked by good intentions, rather tightly-executed human interaction, and a simple yet charming sense of humor (which, if you've seen Happiness of the Katakuris, you know he's certainly got a humor femur or two). Miike's almost begging you to find some form of comfort with Aoyama's situation, almost trying to sedate his audience to a degree where they drop their guard -- acting as both a tactic to play with fresh eyes and a nod to a more Miike-weathered audience expecting something, well, more.
Audition aims to establish a strong sense of legitimacy behind the family bond, boasting its firm construction like an "invincible" drunken guy at a bar begging for a punch to the stomach or a castle claiming impenetrable walls. It challenges the audience to empathize with Ryo Ishibashi's performance as the heartbroken-yet-healing father, which can claim a lot of ownership to the dramatic qualities. It gives us a tangible character in Aoyama with which we strongly identify, something that very, very few horror films can actually claim -- a true sense of sentiment behind the lead. Eventually, of course, we'll wish that we didn't identify with the family and that those walls were a great deal stronger.
Innocent little Asami, played by Eihi Shiina, give us a reason to spin around rapidly and see what's been creeping behind us from the start of Audition. Little hints are scattered throughout that pave the way for something deeper and darker in her past, yet her complacent disposition never reveals anything at an inopportune time. She's enchanting in all the wrong ways, unbearable stone-faced in her facial expressions, and quite possibly one of the most highly regarded villains in all of horror. Witnessing the tension swelling amid her presence is something akin to watching a razor-tipped pendulum swinging backwards and forwards onto an unsuspecting victim; you have a hunch that it's going to lead towards the demise of the person underneath, but you can't help but stare with breathless awe as it swings closer and closer. And, without question, Takashi Miike doesn't leave us dissatisfied, pumping it full of gender-flipped potency that would likely make In the Realm of the Senses' director Nagisa Oshima proud.
As Audition quickly begins to unspool at its spellbinding third act, the look of chaotic disbelief on fresh watchers' faces is the stuff horror legends are made of. It builds into something utterly terrifying and grisly within a whirlwind barrage of abrasive surreality, swelling with near-unbearable tension as its climax -- heralded by many as one of the most frightening and grotesque scenes in all of horror -- works its masochistic magic. Time after time in front of this arresting little horror masterwork, it has yet to fail in causing my head to spin in a lightheaded stupor at its pinnacle of exploitative, grindhouse-style monstrosity. Superb acting and taut, shiver-inducing production values make its improbable constriction in narrative seem much more viable than we'd ever really want it to, while brandishing returners to its guttural intensity as near-masochists. A thought arises before each screening of Audition, something to the tune of "Why on earth should this be watched again?" The answer lies in Takashi Miike's excellence in manipulating our perception of the normal into anything but, mounting into a shocking horror classic that endures because of its ability to lure us into a nightmare -- then tear our senses to shreds.
Shout Factory have taken the bull by the horns by releasing the uncut (115-minute) print of Audition, a film in much need of a stronger edition, on Blu-ray in a two-disc package. Keep in mind that the second disc is, in fact, a DVD instead of a Blu-ray disc -- likely the same one used for the standard-definition presentation. It'll be a while before you're able to find a more fitting and thoughtfully-designed package, as the combination of simple yet attractive discart and inner syringe graphic create a very pleasing package. A Booklet has been included inside containing an essay from Tom Mes on Miike's film, as well as a chapter listing.
Video and Audio:
Describing Audition's 1.78:1 framed, 1080p AVC encode is a little on the difficult side, as it's both an overwhelmingly positive step-up and somewhat of a letdown due to some scattershot issues. For one, it's worth noting that Takashi Miike's visual style here stays persistently mundane throughout a large chunk of the film, as it aids in the banality of the situation. It embarks on more creative tangents late on, but it's mostly an exercise in maintaining a placid demeanor. With that in mind, it's heartening to see a rich replication of skin tones and fine details throughout these scenes, though spotted through a generous veil of film grain. The cold audition room keeps its clammy appearance, while the semi-dark contours of Aoyama's home support an attractive rendering of some black levels. However, the print Shout Factory used isn't in the best shape, showcasing a somewhat drastic level of film speckling, reel-shift markers, and a few instances of age-staining against lop-sided points on the image (such as a scene with Aoyama thumbing through applications).
Considering those idiosyncrasies, Audition's Blu-ray treatment still looks extremely good in retaining its natural visual ambiance. The color scheme largely mirrors that of Lionsgate's DVD, a presentation poorly-sourced from a decent PAL image. Many scenes showcase colors that pop where they don't in previous editions, evident right away at the diorama Aoyama's young son carries to his mother's bedside -- elucidating crisper greens and a much stronger fluidity of movement. As the artistry does start to escalate in Audition, the 1080p transfer maintains lush projection of fluctuating palettes and a strong grasp on metallic and fabric-based textures (like the natural sheen against Asami's leather, or the dense detail in carpeting and wood in Aoyama's home). Blasts of color, from pinkish-crimson shades ina restaurant to the succulent blues in a flashback sequence, stay solid and natural without any hints of contrast-boosting or image bleeding. Though it hits a few speedbumps with grain and print damage while projecting a film that's not exactly ideal for a high-definition experience, Shout Factory have done an impressive job in both staying true to the film's visual intent and retaining a few surprising instances of high-definition aptitude.
On the audio front, however, this Blu-ray disc is a no-brainer. Offered in both lossless Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD Master Audio 5.0 mixes from the original audio elements, the boost in clarity will be substantially appreciated for those with a discerning ear. Sure, there's a few sequences early in the film that have the slightest bit of difficulty with dialogue clearness (the fishing scene), but overall vocal sharpness has bee greatly heightened and given quite a robust boost -- dropping some of the thinness present in previous tracks. Surround elements stretch to the rear-channels in fine breadth, offering some environmental effects like an infuriating telephone ring that'll leave you on the edge of your seat. Most of all, the sound effects that really matter -- metallic, fleshy, rolling thuds, and crash-worthy blasts -- find exquisite separation and naturalness with this haunting mix. After a bit of spot-testing, it's pretty much a moot point to gauge which of the lossless tracks is "better" -- though a nudge might be tossed in the DTS Master Audio track's direction for sheer balance and clarity. Some lower-frequency activity would've been nice in a few scenes, but this is a largely dynamic and enveloping mix.
Shout Factory have also included a different subtitle translation, one that reads a bit more accurately than the previous Lionsgate disc. Instead of a line reading "... your writing says that quitting what you liked is almost similar to accepting death", the Shout Factory disc reads the same line as "... your essay says that your dream died, and it was like accepting death". Similar refinements in the dialogue are expressed throughout, which is a very welcome addition.
Commentary with Takashi Miike and Saisuke Tengan (On Blu-ray):
Moderated by writer Masato Kobayashi, this commentary track showcases one prevalent fact: that Miike is very reserved in expressing any form of narcissism about his ability. He's such a humble filmmaker and highly thankful for his audience's acceptance, which is unexpected due to the wild nature of his films. It also shows exactly why he rarely performs commentaries alone, as he clams up a bit in the middle of the discussion. However, this is a very insightful -- if stuffy -- commentary that touches on many of the filmic parts of Audition, as well as some probing on Saisuke Tengan on adapting the film from Ryū Murakami's novel. Some discussion falls on the amount (or lack of) makeup on Eihi Shiina, as well as a writer's relationship as a regular penman for a director.
Interviews (1:13:44 complete, 16x9 on DVD):
Several interviews are available on the bonus disc from Audition's actors. Each of the interviews from Outcast Cinema contain tons of raw interview footage, with graphics and such intermingle into the runtimes.
Ryo Ishibashi (16:18) discusses the differences between working on Miike's set and performing on-stage as a musician, about working against his Yakuza typecasting, and about trying convince Eihi Shiina that "addition" to her role wasn't necessary. Eihi Shiina(20:03) discusses her career before Audition, about how working in the final scene wasn't as disturbing as it seems due to commitment to Asami as a character, and about how fans react to her presence after all these years. Renji Ishibashi (20:54) discussing his experience with Miike working on The Bird People of China (another film that desperately needs a better home video presentation) as well as sexuality, while Ren Osugi (16:24) discusses pink films and waiting with ghastly makeup on for several hours.
Also included are two Trailers (On DVD), one International Trailer (1:17, 4x3) and one Japanese Trailer (1:47, 4x3), as well as video Introductions from director Takashi Miike and Eihi Shiina at the start of the film -- which are able to be skipped.
Audition's conclusion easily stands as one of the most effective, stomach-churning resolutions to a horror film. It's in the build-up and the gradual gradient of suspense that mounts throughout the core story that makes this iconic scene potent, deconstructing the everyday nature of the story with a dizzying onslaught of surrealist imagery and blood-drenched chaos as it approaches the close. On top of that, we're given the villainous Asami -- who, in these eyes, is a revelation in the dark recesses of macabre cinema. Its bleakness is unparalleled, and easily earns marks as quite a shocker. Yes, Audition is difficult to watch near its end, and might strike some as impossible to return to after its shocking finale; however, the way that it obliterates a gracefully built-up narrative makes it infinitely intriguing. Plus, the stall in grotesqueness simply heightens the gross-out anticipation.
Audition has had a bit of a sordid history in releases in the United States, all of which comes answered from Shout Factory with a thoroughly satisfying Blu-ray presentation. Sporting a flawed yet fluidly natural visual treatment and a great duo of lossless tracks, the film certainly looks leaps and bounds better than its previous presentations -- while also comes equipped with a few strong extras, including a new commentary with Miike and several enlightening new interviews with the cast. Though it has a few source print issues and lacks one or two extras from the previous edition (scene-specific commentary from Miike, Ryū Murakami interview), this bolstered high-definition presentation of Audition comes Highly Recommended -- both for its drastically improved quality in visuals and for the simple fact that it's one of the more nerve-rattling horror films ever created.