The golden age of horror: Audition (2000)

Bill: The first thing anyone new to the films of Japanese director Takashi Miike should do is visit his entry on IMDB. Just look at that headshot. He doesn’t look terribly interested in pleasing anyone, does he? Checking out his bio we find quotes that support that cursory observation. Miike says things like “I don’t think about the audience, I don’t think about what makes them happy, because there’s no way for me to know.”, and “I don’t make rules myself. I didn’t study enough to be able to make them. I’m too stupid.” This is a director who created an episode for a series called The Masters of Horror on Showtime that was deemed too graphically disturbing to air. The year prior to that he worked on the revival of the classic Japanese children’s show, Ultraman.

I guess what I’m saying is that when you sit down for a Miike film, you really don’t know what to expect from the man.

After the jump: Yup, not what I expected.

Bill: Audition, based on a novel by Japanese author Ryū Murakami, was filmed in 1999. Japanese horror at that time was starting to move away from the graphic content found in endeavors from the mid-eighties to early nineties (like the infamous Guinea Pig series, Evil Dead Trap and Hiroku the Goblin). As Y2K approached, ghost stories were starting to become more popular (as they had been in the fifties and early sixties), but it would be a few more years before movies like The Ring and Ju-on gave these ghosts real teeth again.

Chris: Wait. Audition is an example of Japanese horror moving away from graphic content? You’re kidding me, right?

Bill: Well, the trend prior to that was pretty cartoonish and over the top, but I can see your point. I was a bit squeamish when I first saw it, I must admit, but Audition was for me an eye opener. I think it was my first real Asian horror film. Growing up in a small town in Ohio (population: 3 dogs and guy named Doug), there weren’t a lot of theaters that would play such fare. It wasn’t until I moved to Chicago that I started to discover that other countries made scary flicks too.

What I found most fascinating about this tale of unrequited love and piano wire dismemberment was that it went places I never thought it would. That iconic scene with Asami (the femme fatale of the film) sitting alone and quietly next to a bag in an empty apartment–a bag which suddenly lurches across the room violently, and in the process of doing so, serves as a signal that act II has just begun–is a perfect example. I remember thinking to myself, “Well…I give up trying to guess what’s next.” For an old fan of horror movies, that’s the best compliment I can pay a film.

Chris: That sack scene is just tremendous. I love how Miike sets that up in an earlier shot, where you can see it in the background and you sort of dismiss it as “Oh, she’s pretty weird, she keeps her stuff in a sack.” Stuff, indeed.

Bill: When I realized that the real monster in this film was actually the one I initially felt needed the most protection, the one who elicited the most sympathy (at least up until the arrival of the shimmy bag), I was dumbstruck. It was like watching The Wizard of Oz and having Dorothy suddenly take an axe to the cowardly lion without warning. Although It should be noted that Aoyama, the male lead, isn’t exactly a stand up guy. I mean, he lets his sleazy filmmaker friend use a casting call as a ruse for finding dates, for cryin’ out loud.

Chris: What really surprised me a bit about Audition is how long a movie it is. The first extended piece of the movie is so languidly paced, and probably a bit too long. I suppose it does what it needs to as far as establishing a quiet tone and painting Mr. Aoyama as a buttoned-up family man. I will say that the numerous shots focused on the family dog seemed a bit overdone. It isn’t hard to puzzle out that the poor pooch is gonna be toast. Why do dogs always have to be a horror movie’s, uh, bitch?

While this was my first time viewing Audition, I’d had the tonal shift that occurs in the film spoiled for me and knew I was in for a harrowing ride from the very start. Even the packaging of the physical media and digital copies of the film give away the twist, so I think that corpse is out of the bag (so to speak) for anyone seeing the movie now. The good news is that Audition works just fine even knowing that Aoyama’s meet cute scheme is going to have dire consequences. For me it added to the uncomfortable tension present in the awkward dating scenes with Asami. It also gave the story a noir-ish feel when he sets out in pursuit of the missing girl after they spend the night together. As he unravels the mysteries of Asami, the movie felt to me a bit like Angel Heart, where the main character is driven by questions with answers he doesn’t really want to know. For me this was the part of the movie that worked best.

Bill: I found it interesting that making the move from a male protagonist to a female one made the idiotic choices of the male character much more acceptable for me. In my mind, a guy is much more likely to ignore the warning signs that he may be pursuing a Grade A nutjob than would his female counterpart in a similar situation. Especially when the guy is quite a bit older than his paramour. Another interesting thing was that in spite of the reputation this film has for its torture scenes, it really doesn’t linger too long on them. Miike instead chooses to focus on Asami’s enjoyment rather than the actual torture itself. Her look of sheer elation when sticking needles into her victim, as well as the aforementioned piano wire scene, makes the acts even more troubling.

Chris: I was actually pleasantly surprised by how much suggestion there is, and as you note, how much better that works here. Audition’s reputation for grisly and shocking scenes precede it, and that definitely amped up the unease I felt watching it. What I realize now is that much of the shock and disgust that earlier audiences felt at the movie is all keyed off the effective and merciless implications of Miike’s camera choices.

Bill: One final note: I’ve read a few reviews over the years for the film that try to make the case that everything in the second half of the movie (after the hotel bedroom romp) is just Aoyama’s nightmare while lying next to Asami. I can understand how one would think that, given the drastic tonal shift the film undergoes right around that time. But for me, that neuters the film. Audition is a visceral examination of desire and deceit. To take it from raw physicality to purely psychological removes any impact the film might have for me.

Chris: I agree. That Aoyama does flash back to the bedroom scene at the end doesn’t make me think “dream sequence”. Instead, I interpreted it as being that even after everything, he’s still longing for his personal vision of what he originally thought Asami was. Owl Creek Bridging this movie takes it into the territory owned by John Cusack horror movies. No one needs to go there.

(Audition can be seen via on-demand through Amazon and other services as a paid rental or download.)

(So what’s this “golden age of horror” stuff?)