Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina
Director: Takashi Miike
Year of Release: 1999
It is admittedly a folly to recommend Takashi Miike’s Audition. For a film that is hinged on surprise, even a brief synopsis gives too much away. Ideally, you should remove the DVD’s jacket and sell this movie as a romantic comedy. If that unsuspecting friend is a tad studious, you could maybe even hype the film up as a social drama. Such trickery, however, would be cruel. It’s easy enough to find out that Audition ranked #21 on The Guardian’s list of ‘The Best Horror Films of All Time’. The film is even said to have inspired the torture fest Hostel. Miike, though, will forever be far more subversive.
The premise of Audition is as simple as it is disconcerting. A middle-aged widower is prodded by his son to remarry. His friend, who is a film producer, comes up with an ingenious plan. In a mock audition, he’ll look for an actress, while Shigeharu Aayoma (Ryo Ishibashi) can pick his future wife. There’s a lot of wink-wink-nudge-nudge as they ask women about their comfort with sex scenes. Cheerleaders prance around. Aspirants even drop their clothes. But Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is different. A paragon of conventional virtue, she’s soft spoken, deferential and vulnerable. She even once learnt the ballet. Aayoma is smitten and for the rest of Audition’s first half, a romance kindles.
In Japanese popular culture, the boundaries of ‘normal’ are stretched rather regularly. In manga comics, inert matter transmutes into flesh, and in Haruki Murakami’s fiction, cats do a lot of the talking. Few characters respond the way you’d expect them to, and Takashi Miike too evokes the everyday to unsettle it. Scenes of Aayoma taking Asami on ordinary dates are juxtaposed with a scene of the 24-year-old sitting in a darkened room with a body bag in the corner. This bag quivers when her phone rings. Asami suddenly disappears and Miike with his camera shifts gear to frightful.
Unlike most horror films that rely on sense and sound for dread, the terror in Audition is altogether concentrated on the body. A story is told of a corpse that was found chopped into pieces. When the police try to piece together the body again, they strangely find an extra tongue. Miike certainly has a stomach for gore and weirdness. In his Ichi the Killer (2001), a man again slices off the end of his own tongue. Though the violence in Audition is similarly gut-wrenching in parts, it is also potentially radical. Asami dishes out pain she has first received. Her body is a site of perpetual abuse and the revenge she seeks with paralysing drugs, acupuncture needles and piano wires is more retribution.
Audition’s climax is certainly not for the very faint-hearted, but this brilliant adaptation of Ryu Murakami’s novel is essential viewing for a more considered understanding of gender and its politics. Like Miike does to his audience, both protagonists of Audition deceive each other. But it is Aayoma’s deception that’s typical of an entitled masculinity which takes women to be props in a parade. In a precursor to the violence in store, Aayoma’s son at one point cuts into a fish. The biology nerd informs his father that though the sea bream originates as male, it turns unisex when it is 15 cm long. Eventually, some of these become female. This gender fluidity that one finds in fish is precisely antithetical to the rigid role Asami is expected to live up to. Her rejection of this cast is fearsome, but it is redemptive. We need women in film to be more violent. We sorely need Asami.