Takashi Miike’s 1999 film Audition is an artful yet horrifying tale of a mild-mannered widower (Ryo Ishibashi) who, in his attempts to find a new wife, falls for a young woman Asami Yamasaki) who is far more than meets the eye. Miike’s signature dreamlike mise-en-scene, complete with moody and atmospheric cinematography and strong, vulnerable performances from both leads, creates a twisted romance/revenge film that strongly addresses issues of gender roles and divisions within relationships, particularly as they are applied to Japanese culture. The film explores and critiques notions of romanticism normally found in modern romantic dramas, as the representation of relationships and sexuality in Audition closely links suffering to pleasure.
The most fascinating part of Audition is its slow pace – unlike many horror films, the proceedings play out primarily like a romantic drama. The premise is one you would find in many East Asian romantic comedies and dramas – Aoyama’s high-concept scheme to find a new wife is sufficiently goofy and unconventional enough to be the premise for a straightforward romance film, wherein Aoyama finds his true love in a soulful young girl who teaches him to love again. The fact that it devolves into such a depraved, horrific film so late in the plot helps to emphasize the inherently horrific nature of the premise – Aoyama is being punished for performing such a manipulative act to gain a wife through deception.
This deception is at the heart of the film, and one way in which Miike deceives us as well; just as Aoyama is going along with a game to actually put a cattle call out for his wife, so too is Miike subverting expectations by inviting us to a horror film only to ‘punish’ us by showing us the first half of a normal, dry romantic drama. Here, Miike’s signature style is the most muted, and his cinematography the most conventional – many of his shots are flat, with little in the way of stylistic movement; acting is performed with little affectation, with many characters having seemingly no energy at all; the conversations characters have are somewhat banal and uninteresting compared to the horror we have come to expect. With this in mind, the first hour of the movie is almost entirely different from what is expected, which sets in a certain kind of disappointment in the viewer. This is an intentional move by Miike to keep us off our guard; when he eventually inserts the macabre and grotesque in the movie, we have been lulled into a false sense of security to the point where it delivers even greater shocks.
The film begins with a sequence that firmly centers Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki, played in this scene by a younger child actor), Aoyama’s son, as the emotional center of the film, and of Aoyama. The film begins with a closeup bird’s-eye view of an arts and crafts project that the young Shige has made for his dying mother. Switching then to a close-up as Shige walks toward the camera down the long, white, sterile hall of the hospital, we see the personification of innocence, which is about to be traumatized somewhat by the death of his mother. In the beginning sequence, he does not make it to the room in time before his mother dies, making it surprising and cathartic when he comes back to his family’s apartment early at the end to stop Asami from cutting off his father’s other leg. Opening the film not with either of the main characters, but with the son who ultimately saves his father’s life, is an interesting bit of subversion akin to his strategy toward the rest of the film, and one which foreshadows his caring and protective nature.
After the title credit rolls (to a long shot of just the two of them walking down a busy Tokyo street), we cut to a scene that foreshadows Aoyama’s romantic journey; he is literally trying to catch fish in the sea, personifying the common metaphor about picking up women. Even the dialogue alludes to Aoyama’s refusal to settle and potentially overly-high standards; he says to his son (who is now pubescent and implicitly picking up girls/fish himself), “I’m only after the big ones.” The subtext is, conveniently, made text, when they transition fish talk to girl talk: “I prefer real-live girls to imaginary big fish.” This conversation is cut short with a phone call, then a surprisingly violent bite on Aoyama’s hook. The normally subtle and low-key mise-en-scene is harshly interrupted by an extreme close-up of the bending fishing rod and the inordinately loud ‘whizz’ of the spooling line (which not incidentally, as he reels it in, sounds like the sawing motion of the piano wire Asami uses later in the movie). Here, in the low-key part of the film, is one particular example of Miike’s tendency to foreshadow the horrors that are to come without the audience at first realizing it.
One of the persistent themes in the film (as well as Asami’s primary motivation) is the terrible treatment and consideration of women by men in the film; many symbolic, thematic and plot-related elements of the film relate to that sentiment. Aoyama’s ostensibly well-meaning and mild-mannered search for new, true love is undercut with the selfishness and arrogance he has in the way he pursues women. The scene after he and his son serve and eat the fish they caught earlier in the day is a symbolic indication of Aoyama’s inability to understand women; he and his son converse about how difficult it is to find out what sex this particular fish is, to which he eventually admits, “I don’t know much about ovaries.” Miike’s desire to have harsh closeups on the cut-up whole fish during the scene also foreshadows the cutting and mutilation that will take place in that same location late in the film.
The theme of loneliness and alienation in the film, which plays into the romantic storyline, is chiefly personified by Aoyama – he is a lonely man who seems to go through the motions of life, and who does not seem to particularly miss his wife in general. He is mild-mannered, and does not expect or pursue much. Miike likens this to the entirety of Japanese experience, especially in the larger cities – during a scene in which Aoyama and his friend Yasuhisa are editing footage of a violent-looking rave, Yasuhisa wryly claims, “All Japanese are lonely,” and claims that he is as well. Aoyama does not even consider the idea of remarrying until his son actually suggests it and gives his premature approval for him to do so; in this way, it seems like the idea is out of his realm of expertise, and he seems to be pushed into it by both his son and Yasuhisa.
Aoyama’s poor treatment of women – not through malice, but through simple misunderstanding of the amorality of his actions – comes through in his relationship with his secretary, which Miike plays with tightly-restrained subtlety in the first half of the film. As they discuss appointments in her first scene in the film, she gives him longing looks in demand of his attention, which Miike lingers upon. Eventually, she bursts in on him waiting for the elevator to hurriedly and awkwardly announce her engagement. As seen later, in the nightmare sequence, Aoyama and the secretary have had an affair, which the secretary took to be more than mere infatuation, but which Aoyama was either unwilling or unable to turn into something more. The preceding elevator sequence notes Aoyama’s realization that he can no longer take advantage of his secretaries anymore, and must find romantic companionship through marriage.
The insertion of Asami into the story begins to give us our first few hints, interspersed through this mostly ineffectual and mundane-ly filmed romantic drama, that something is afoul with this woman. The scene in which she receives that call from Aoyama to meet for the first time is played out in a single shot that breaks the straightforward filming style Miike sets up thus far; instead of straight-on conventional framing of her, the camera focuses on a burlap bag, lying still on the floor, with a black phone and Asami (shot from behind so we cannot see her face) staring intently at the phone. This single, macabre image is what finally lets us know something is awry, combined with the atmospheric score that starts to insert ominous tones into the music, almost like an ill wind blowing in. This is interspersed with Aoyama’s dreams as he attempts to fall asleep, which include presentational images of Asami standing half-behind a tree in the distance.
When Asami finally gets the call a few scenes later, Miike’s direction starts to move in closer, shots focusing in on her vertebrae stretched over the back of her neck, closeups of her mouth as it curls up in a smile at the harsh sound of the phone call, and more. We never get a full look at Asami in this sequence, visually indicating we do not know everything about her. The camera is eventually placed in same shot of the burlap sack as before; however, at the very end of the phone call (and of the shot), the bag shifts slightly, and a small moan escapes from it. Miike frequently uses this schizophrenic editing style, in which shots and sequences seem to end abruptly before the action within them is finished, to keep the audience off guard and to convey the nightmarish state of the realities of Asami’s madness.
For the next hour after this, the film continues its slow, methodical transformation from normal romantic drama to psychological horror/thriller, culminating in a macabre series of nightmare sequences that grow relentlessly more intense and disgusting, turning the screws on the audience who have been lulled into a false sense of security by the film’s slow pace thus far. Ultimately, Asami, believing Aoyama has broken his promise to her by continuing to love his son (though he promised he would love no one but her, constituting a betrayal in her eyes), drugs Aoyama’s scotch. When this happens, as the drugs kick in, we cut to a mirrored version of a restaurant scene performed earlier in the film between Aoyama and Asami; this time, the lighting grows from stark white to gradually more red and blue with each shot, culminating in Aoyama recognizing his dead wife sitting next to Asami, whispering to him “She’s not good for you. No!” As she stands up, saying “Darling”, we cut suddenly to a nightmare version of Asami’s decrepit, run-down apartment, with Asami herself standing into frame in place of the wife, finishing her sentence – “I need you now.”
The following sequence fully transitions Audition from a psychological thriller to a fully-formed torture-porn hellish dreamscape, complete with transitory editing, dream imagery, and creatively creepy camerawork that places the audience in Aoyama’s shoes; as he suffers, so do we. The most frightening part of this nightmare sequence is that it is not strictly Aoyama’s; he does not know about the burlap sack, or what her apartment looks like, yet he envision them perfectly. Here, then, he shares in the audience’s collective nightmare (and what we feared would happen to Aoyama ever since the phone scene), learning the truth about Asami through the objective experience of the audience. Asami’s continual shifting into the varying identities of the women Aoyama loves, and has loved, moves next into Aoyama’s secretary midway through giving him oral sex, linking the two women through sex and humiliation (based on the submissive position she is in, on her knees in front of him). Shifting back into Asami, she then transitions into Shige’s young teenage girlfriend, making explicit his sexual feelings about her as well. Here, we see the effect that these women have on Aoyama (and vice versa), as his repressed sexual desires toward most of the women he meets confront him head-on.
After this point, the man in the burlap bag starts to move, crawling out of the tied-up sack, Miike lingering on extreme close-ups of the dirty, amputated legs of the victim, as well as his grasping, mutilated hand (which is missing three fingers). Miike refuses to allow the audience to shy away from these grotesque images, the camera positioned at high angles over him to indicate the pity with which we find him. When he is fed Asami’s vomit, he happily laps it up, Aoyama recognizing that this is what Asami means to do to him as well. Quick cuts of a dismembered, lapping tongue add to the horror of Aoyama’s nightmare, as he remembers the number of limbs recounted to him in the earlier scene when he looks for Asami’s former employer. Asami then starts petting the victim’s hair, showing him affection, as the film cuts to her being played by her childlike self, indicating that her mind is still stuck in that of a child’s, and that she equates this violence with pleasure, acceptance and love.
The following sequence, after Aoyama passes out and wakes back up to find himself sedated and being tortured by Asami, is the most notable sequence in the film, and is the culmination of all of these abstract discoveries about both individuals. The painfully horrifying scene of her gleefully inserting metal wires into Aoyama’s chest and eyes are filmed with just enough obscurity to allow the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks; first, the camera slowly pans behind her, her head obscuring a good portion of the actual contact between steel and flesh, though we can still see Aoyama’s silent crying and thrashing. Then, when the wires are inserted into his eyes, the camera cuts to a POV shot of Aoyama seeing the wires pushed in. This particular shot is one of the most effective, as it follows Miike’s conceit of blurring the line between Aoyama and the audience, the film figuratively torturing the audience with its unrelenting violence. The amputation of the legs is the same way; we only see glimpses of the actual sawing of the piano wire, and Asami’s gleeful movement of the handles, getting quick cuts of the actual leg being removed, nonetheless provide extremely effective disgust in the audience. Though this is eventually stopped by Shige coming back early and breaking Asami’s neck in the struggle, Miike permits himself one final bit of presentational moralizing; Asami, staring at Aoyama from the stairwell, her neck cracking and breaking as she speaks, repeats her speech from her audition about how excited she was to see him. In the end, Asami’s torturing of Aoyama was still her twisted way of conveying love to him, turning the film’s message into a sick twisted game of “be careful what you wish for.”
In conclusion, Audition is an audacious and unpredictable film that lulls the audience into a false sense of security by intentionally misleading them with the slow pace and mundane nature of the first half of the film, then turning the tables in the most macabre way with one of the most relentless, intrusive and affecting final half hours in horror film history. The film tackles themes of gender roles and expectations in relationships, the line between pain and pleasure, and the sexual abuse (to whatever extent) men perpetuate on young women. By turning a corny and conventional romantic drama conceit on its head, Takashi Miike creates a horrific dreamscape of frenetic editing, deliberately slow pacing, incredible sound design and careful cinematography to make Audition an audacious entry in the Japanese horror genre.
Miike, Takashi (dir.) Audition. Perf. Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina. Vitagraph Films, 1999. Film.