It's hard to believe it's been ten years since Takashi Miike made an international name for himself with Audition. Arguably even more than Ringu, (which was still in cult status at the time) Audition brought J-horror to the masses, shocking the hell out of literati from New York to Paris. Or something like that. The point is, when even fellow students in my metal-working class were wandering around saying "kiri, kiri, kiri" in 2001, I just knew fear of Japanese women (as portrayed by Miike and others) had finally moved beyond Yoko Ono.
What makes Miike's masterpiece (based on the Ryu Murakami novel) so incendiary is how the director tricks the audience into thinking they're watching one thing, when in reality they're in for something entirely different. Of course this subterfuge is best experienced if you have little to no idea what you're in for when watching the movie, something that might still be possible to experience today. Whether you're forewarned or totally in the dark, Miike constructs a scenario that lulls you into dreamy complacency with a gentle and seemingly trustworthy hand. At some point, that hand suddenly jerks you off the path and into the abyss.
Ostensibly, viewers enter Audition looking for a wistful romance of sorts: Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) has been widowed many years, he lives a lonely professional life with his one son. That son begins dating, prompting Aoyama into a scheme to find his new love. With the help of a movie producer, a series of auditions are conducted. The ladies think they're going for a juicy role, but Aoyama is really carefully looking for his 'perfect mate'.
After a humorous audition montage that puts most Hollywood stuff to shame, that mate is found, and things begin to go sideways, slowly and innocently at first. Ultimately we're left to wonder about the nature of human dating, and to question whether we're picking someone, or being picked.
Audition works on two or three levels, more than enough for your average movie to be successful, but since these levels can nominally be assigned as 'the basement', 'the 10th floor', and 'the penthouse', it's clear Miike has pulled off a singular trick. It's one not exactly present in his lengthy resume of shockers from Fudoh to Visitor Q. Rarely has he displayed the sensitivity and finesse evident here. Audition is a genre effort that takes itself extremely seriously and has the strength to back every claim up. From its slow-build, to its potent payoff scenes, to its oddly sanguine ending, not only are there no missteps, there's some seriously fancy footwork.
Miike and Ishibashi establish morose resignation with ease. Aoyama's wife dies in truly tragic fashion, and he carries on manfully; dogged, stern, but loving. Yet the cold grey interiors of his life - witness his truly pathetic bedroom - display profound isolation. He's a decent father, and when the time comes we're rooting for him to find true love. The slickness with which Miike presents his tricky Love Connection audition can't help but make us laugh. And even as his romance enters the uncanny territory, (his choice girlfriend Asami, played to amazing effect by Eihi Shiina, is clearly off, but not too much to create real worry) we still hope for Aoyama to crack his lady's icy exterior.
When it's finally time to get down to business, camera work that has been static, polite and cold, becomes edgy, unsteady and duplicitous. A key scene between Aoyama and his producer buddy deftly shifts sightlines to create real disorientation. Time shifts and reveries further throw us off guard, so we're no longer sure if what we're seeing is real, a dream, or a memory. And after it's all said and done - and oh, what a lot is said and done - Miike leaves us wistful still, as a character asks. "that's what life's all about, isn't it?"
Audition is a difficult film to watch. From benign beginnings it just goes deeper and deeper into life's wounds, until you're begging for it to stop. But withal, it's a truly cathartic experience, and one you won't forget, because Miike's sure hand guides you gently, then cuffs you about the ears, before sending you out to face the animals. It may be an indictment of the culture of obedience inculcated in Japanese women, or it may just be a different iteration of my dad's one sage bit of advice for me; 'take care of your feet'. It's most definitely cinema on the edge, and still as powerful today as when it debuted.