New Age Nasty: Audition (1999)

Audition-1999-poster

From Italy to Asia now with some choice selections from one of Japan’s most influential, groundbreaking, and unconventional film-makers: Takashi Miike. Takashi Miike is a veteran of Japanese cinema with a career that began in 1991 and continues to this very day with him making multiple films per year. To this day, he has a grand total of 104 TV and Film projects under his name. With thanks to film festivals, and high-profile extreme cinema fans such as Quentin Tarantino, The Soska Sisters and Eli Roth, Takashi Miike’s films made a huge impact when they began to become recognized in Western cinema circles in the early 21st Century. Since then, Takashi Miike has become a cult icon with a certain reputation for violent and graphic movies, so much so that he even had a small cameo in 2005’s Hostel movie as a purveyor of violent gore.

However, when it comes to Takashi Miike’s reputation, I believe the fact that he is mainly recognized as an extreme film-maker is somewhat misleading as Takashi Miike has successfully delved into all manner of cinema such as children’s films, character dramas, and even video game adaptations.  Although some of Takashi Miike’s more famous films are quite extreme in nature, a lot of his films are dedicated not to gore or shocking scenes, but rather they are dedicated to odd, strange, even surreal depictions of fear and violence that touch upon, yet completely detach themselves from normality. Takashi Miike’s films are first and foremost purposefully odd. They defy and go beyond simple genre, and the topics that he touches upon go beyond that which is seen in contemporary cinema. Takashi Miike is not a director who follows a particular style, he is a film-maker with a style all of his own, a style that makes his films stand out amongst all others. His films are groundbreaking, experimental, and sometimes even pushes the envelope as far as it can possibly be pushed.

Arguably, this all started with 1999’s Audition, an adaptation of the 1997 novel by Ryu Murakami. This was the film that made Takashi Miike’s name a staple to Western audiences and even kick-started a brand-new genre of film in the west: Asian Extreme Cinema, a genre to which Takashi Miike’s name would become closely identified with. When Audition was first screened at Rotterdam film festival many people walked out, and this controversy pushed the film to be screened to more and more people. Quentin Tarantino himself described Audition as ‘…a true masterpiece if there ever was one…’. All of this started Takashi Miike’s success in the west, but that success would soon become amplified with other highly successful and influential films such as Ichi The Killer, Dead Or Alive, Visitor Q, and even his most mainstream effort to date: 13 Assassins (all which I will cover soon enough), but Audition still remains as his most popular and most iconic movie to this day.

Audition, like many of Takashi Miike’s films, is a film that defies genre. It is popularly defined as a Horror film, but truth be told it doesn’t really fit into that genre completely as the film contains many elements of Romance, Drama, and even Comedy as well as Horror. Audition is a film that uses its defiance of genre to its benefit. The story of a middle-aged widower (Aoyama) who holds a fake audition to seek a new wife is one that starts simple enough, but, slowly, the film gradually begins to fall into darker and darker territory. The film begins light-hearted with very likable characters and a plot that seems ripped straight out of a romantic comedy, but as the movie progresses, the story begins to move into darker and darker territories until the horrifying climax which, and I’m saying this with all honesty, is most likely the reason anyone would want to watch this film in the first place. That’s not to say that Audition is bad, I’m not saying that at all, but for a film with so much going for it the fact that any and all marketing in the west wants to fixate on the final ten minutes of the film is a great disservice to the film itself. In my opinion, Audition is film with so much going for it with its depictions of everyday love, romance, vulnerability and disturbing obsessions that to sell Audition via its iconic climax doesn’t give the film the justice it deserves. It’s a film that needs to deceive, a film that wants its viewers to become as confused and as shocked as the main character himself, a film that needs to plunge an audience into the inescapable depths of hell as he does so himself.

However, what makes Audition stand out thematically is the fact that it’s a film that can be read in many different ways. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more surreal as the real and unreal begin to blend together leading to multiple possibilities about the film’s canon of events. The film can be read as having a firm ground in reality as a moral tale about men who use chauvinistic techniques in order to find a ‘perfect bride’, or a warning tale to men about being wary of strange women who demand too much and offer themselves too easily. However, when the canonical series events of the film are interpreted in a different way, the film becomes a tale of accepting a loved one completely despite fears and doubts, or even a warning tale of how one’s fears are over-emphasized in the face of new commitments, creating unjustified anxiety that can be released in the embrace of love. Personally, I find it hard to get a grip on what this film is actually representing, and I find that the beauty of this film and indeed many other Takashi Miike films. Audition is a film that can be read in many different ways with the clincher being that there is no wrong way of interpreting this film due to its odd and confusing nature, and it is one of the vital points of why Audition is so iconic and fondly remembered.

As for the film itself, Audition is a well-made, creative if low-budget looking affair. The main emphasis of this movie is definitely on the visual style and fantastic performances on display. The two main actors: Ryo Ishibashi (Aoyama) and Eihi Shiina (Asami) are captivating in their performances. Both play on the emphasis of realism. Ryo Ishibashi completely sells his performance as a normal, everyday father with flawless, perfect reactions to what is going on around him, especially in the face of grotesque Horror. On the other hand, however,  Eihi Shiina is completely realistic, believable, yet at the same time unnervingly creepy with her portrayal of the deeply disturbed Asami. She manages to capture the vulnerability, the unnerving mystery, and the horrible psychopathy of such a role, and it’s so mesmerizing to witness as a viewer. As far as I can tell, seeing as the only other movie I’ve seen her in is Tokyo Gore Police, this is definitely Eihi Shiina’s greatest performance in cinema. It certainly feels like she nailed the role completely and without such, with literally anyone else playing the role of Asami, Audition would have certainly become a lesser film.

As for the film’s technical aspects, Audition is a film with a fantastic visual flair. The film’s color palette and treatment say a lot about the film’s themes and what to expect from the plot. For example, the film starts off in soft lighting to represent a flashback sequence, then it keeps a realistic palette for the majority of the plot, before adding more colorful and surreal lighting as the film begins to delve into its more disturbing aspects, thus adding a very odd and somewhat off-putting frame around what’s happening onscreen. This is accentuated by the camera work with starts off with a realistic edge before slowly becoming more creative and stranger as the film goes along. Upon reflection, I feel that the film’s visual style may be a clue as to the true canonical events of the film, but that’s only my hypothesis. Nonetheless, the films visual style definitely adds to the memorable impact of Audition.

As for the film’s ‘nasty’ reputation, Audition definitely deserves its reputation as an ‘extreme’ film, if only for the last ten minutes which I’ve stated earlier. When the film delves into darker territory, it definitely holds nothing back, causing it to fall into the category of ‘Torture Porn’ by critics of the time. The final act is captivating in its grotesqueness. Its spine-shuddering violence and highly realistic practical effects give the film its reputation as a Horror movie as everything up until that point was anything but. However, I definitely feel that the film’s extreme scenarios do go hand in hand with the film’s narrative content and the themes that the movie explores. Audition would have definitely had a much lesser impact if the gruesomeness were not fully intact. Unlike many films that feature heavy gore and disturbing content, Audition is a film which blends extreme content with a thought-provoking plot, and to cut out either would hurt the film’s impact and intentions.

Audition is definitely an iconic film for a plethora of good reasons. However, it’s definitely one that cannot be watched too many times lest it wears out its impact because the film thrives on the fact that a viewer is unaware of what’s coming next. It’s a film designed to keep one guessing, play with one’s imagination, then follow it up with a gut-punch of the grotesque in order to create a memorable cinematic experience.

I truly recommend this movie for all it does right, especially for showing extreme cinema fans the bizarre mind of Takashi Miike.

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