This is one audition you may want to skip
Reports from the front lines of early cinema suggest that many viewers during the ‘teens and before were terrified by the larger-than-life trains, horses, people, etc. that seemed to be coming at them from the screen. That feeling of cinema as edge spectacle blurring the line between object and audience resurfaces with a vengeance in Takashi Miike’s Audition (Odishon). The film, shot in 1999 but not exactly a multiplex staple, is notorious mostly from festival screenings that resulted in both awards and mass walkouts, as at the Rotterdam Film Festival. To get some idea of its impact, think of Audition as a cozy fit with such films as In the Realm of the Senses, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, or any of the over-the-top gay movies of the past few years with terse titles like Bone, Frisk, or Hard. If these works upset you, you might consider skipping this one. Hardier souls will get their reward.
Audition differs from its peers in seeming to be two quite different films. For close to an hour it has the look and feel of a classic Japanese family drama a la Ozu, with a middle-class man and his son quietly getting on with their lives after the death of his wife. These scenes are so understated that one can imagine some viewers falling asleep or walking out in boredom.
But Miike’s purpose becomes painfully clear when the film switches gears. All that quiet, even schmaltzy family stuff is part of his strategy of quietly seducing the viewer into an increasingly credible world. Just past midpoint everything changes: the film bails on the narrative, intertwines dream sequences and reality so densely there’s no telling what’s real, and pushes the gore and grue to a limit rarely seen outside the cheesy cinematic bloodbaths of 1960s schlocksters like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Al Adamson. Of course, it’s hard to take those films seriously except perhaps as a twisted, naïve personal vision. Miike’s careful brickbuilding gives surprising heft to what follows, engaging and repelling the viewer in equal measure but also making it all seem disturbingly real.
TV producer Aoyama Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is the aforementioned middle-class man, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) his teenage son. His friend, movie producer Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), has the perfect palliative for Aoyoma’s loneliness: test out a number of possible new wives by holding a phony movie audition. The clueless Shigeharu eagerly agrees, and he and Yoshikawa hold interviews marked by questions about sex that seem to have little to do with acting. Aoyama eventually settles on tall, otherworldly waif Asami (played by ex-model Eihi Shiina). The more seasoned Yoshikawa senses that something’s not quite right with Asami; he investigates and finds many a hole in her story. And Asami’s ghostly presence and grim pronouncements about the death of hope don’t foretell a life of party hearty. To say much more would be to spoil the film’s unpleasant surprises.
Miike’s visuals manipulate the film’s multiple worlds with tense authority. He brazenly juggles time and space, using machine-gun editing and exotic color filters to unhinge viewers, though this game of what is real and what isn’t gets so hyper that it runs the risk of bewildering undercaffeinated audiences. He elicits fine performances from the entire cast. Ishibashi brings a calm nobility to the role of pathetic Everyman, even as he’s subtly indicted as a user. Shiina, dressed in shimmering white, is superb in a difficult role, moving in and out of the film’s dreamy ambiences with commanding power. Kunimura registers nicely as the vaguely creepy producer, while newcomer Sawaki is coolly credible as Aoyama’s son.
Miike has been compared to any number of style-heavy goremeisters, most notably Dario Argento of Suspiria fame. This is unfair to Miike, given Argento’s feeble grasp of narrative and general air of tedium. (Miike dispenses with narrative, but it’s obvious he’s capable of rendering it; and the film is ultimately far from tedious.)Audition has been the subject of widespread commentary, praise, and attack, interpreted as a feminist revenge movie, a screed against Japanese society’s objectification of women, a protracted exercise in sex ‘n sadism, a neo-gore film, and a dark farce. To say that it feeds all these interpretations to varying degrees is not a criticism, but evidence of the film’s disturbing riches. Audition would make an ideal “midnight movie,” except that it would be 2 a.m. when you left the theater, in the dark.