Review: Audition (1999)

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Cast: Eihi Shiina, Ryo Ishibashi
Director: Takashi Miike
Country: Japan
Genre: Horror
Official Trailer: Here


Takashi Miike’s 1999 Audition is one of that limited class of horror film frequently mentioned more as an endurance test than a viewing experience. Seen sometimes as a predecessor of sorts to the likes of torture porn and the New French Extremity, Audition’s infamously violent final act is seen still as a horror fan’s rite of passage. It would be foolish, however, to view Miike’s film as a simple exercise in tolerance-pushing exploitation; he utilises the nature of the genre not just to physically provoke his audience, but to create through such invocation a mental reaction, drawing us to look beyond the horror to the societal criticisms it exposes, and the deeper aspects of the darkness within humanity. His cipher in this is the middle-aged Aoyama, whose loss of his wife to illness seven years prior has left him to raise their now-teenage son alone. Spurred on by his son’s motivations to re-marry, and eager to avoid committing without fully knowing his bride-to-be, Aoyama accepts the invitation of a film producer friend to use an audition as a screening of prospective partners. Enticed by the quiet allure of the 24 year old Asami, Aoyama becomes obsessed, the perfection of the enigmatic woman impossible for him to forget.

he utilises the nature of the genre not just to physically provoke his audience, but to create through such invocation a mental reaction, drawing us to look beyond the horror to the societal criticisms it exposes, and the deeper aspects of the darkness within humanity.

“Only when you’re in extreme pain do you understand your own mind,” remarks Asami at one point. It’s one of those rare instances where an entire film is wholly and brilliantly surmised by a quote within itself. What makes horror so fascinating a genre is its reliance upon eliciting a physical response. One could argue that dramas aspire toward drawing tears from us, and comedies certainly thrive on the provocation of laughter, but no genre is as reliant upon a particular bodily reaction as horror, defined by its dependency on frightening us. To invoke the fight or flight response that gets our hearts racing is no easy feat, as the seemingly unending wave of films which rely on jump scares will attest. Miike understands the importance of making his audience uncomfortable, of making them vicariously feel the same pain as Aoyama does as the film progresses. Successful horror transcends the fiction it presents itself within to become a window into the human soul, reflecting the darker aspects of our nature and our society and showing the negative results that are sure to come from them, and it is in this respect that Audition thrives.

Famed though it may be for the more gruesome physical horror of its closing thirty minutes, Audition’s primary register is psychological, Miike employing consistently disturbing imagery to build an atmosphere that facilitates our immersion in the mindset of his protagonist. Aoyama’s instant attraction to Asami and her overly idyllic reciprocation are undermined by the visually jarring cuts to expressionist scenes emphasising her features. Her face peers out from behind a tree, the sole visible eye glancing beyond the camera to us. Most modern horror directors misguidedly believe that fright lies in the sudden; Miike evidently understands that fear comes from the strange, the mysterious, the unexplained. Such scenes come as the daydreamed fruits of Aoyama’s obsession, shrouded in an ethereal and inexplicably eerie tension that plays with our minds, lending every scene an apprehension that is difficult to understand. Audition earns the right to our fear, working consistently to play on our suspicions so that when the explicit horror does come, it scares because we have been conditioned over the course of the prior ninety minutes, not because it is a sudden loud noise in our ears.

Famed though it may be for the more gruesome physical horror of its closing thirty minutes, Audition’s primary register is psychological, Miike employing consistently disturbing imagery to build an atmosphere that facilitates our immersion in the mindset of his protagonist.

Eiha Shiina’s portrayal of Asami is Audition’s greatest strength, the remarkable coldness of her stare a startling contrast to her meek embodiment of traditional Japanese graceful femininity. Her character varies between the fulfilment of Aoyama’s fantasy and, somehow, its starkest opposition. She is at once the archetypal perfect wife and, more sinisterly, the kind of powerful force who overthrows such facetious ideals. Miike establishes her as an initially benevolent, needful character, but the subtleties of his direction reveal the truth of the situation. The audition scene itself is beautifully framed, the chair on which the candidates sit positioned pristinely between bright windows and their reflection on the wooden floors, set an austere distance from Aoyama as he surveys them. We see each of the women from his perspective as he and his co-conspirator quiz them, have them display their talents, essentially objectify them. Miike inverts this upon Asami’s arrival; she may seem a fragile, delicate paragon of the type of femininity Aoyama seeks, but the camera’s move to her side of the room to show events through her eyes is an early indication of who is really in control of this situation.

Audition, like all truly great horror films, lures its audience in with the promise of terrorisation before twisting the emotions it engenders to critique aspects of humankind and, here particularly, our society. A ferocious condemnation of the typical sexism and objectification of women in patriarchal societies, the abstruse dream sequences and visual segues build to a tense crescendo of discomfort that lends the conclusive scene more power than it would hold alone. Its refusal to criminalise its male lead—and the interesting subtext of his son’s parallel story—makes it all the more challenging and thoughtful: his attitudes are not the outcome of targeted prejudice, but he must still pay for his crimes. Miike’s direction and the startlingly bipolar performance of his leading lady reinforce the film’s critical bite, and render Audition a masterpiece of its genre.

[notification type=”star”]85/100 ~ GREAT. Audition, like all truly great horror films, lures its audience in with the promise of terrorisation before twisting the emotions it engenders to critique aspects of humankind and, here particularly, our society.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.