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July 2, 2008 |

By TK Burton | | July 2, 2008 |

Let’s just come out and say it: There is something wrong with Takashi Miike, director of Audition. Seriously, deeply, profoundly wrong. I’m not necessarily saying that as a bad thing, mind you… but I’m telling you right now — I’m never eating dinner at his house, or sleeping in his guest room. Because a mind that thinks up the things that his does is a mind I don’t need in my life. Yet the truth is that we are richer, cinematically speaking, for having him.

Japanese horror films have exploded in the last few years, finally making their way to North American shores after languishing for too long in the East. Unfortunately, it took a relatively short time for a fascinating sub-genre to be co-opted and, in many cases, ruined. Two problems have occurred: 1) There has been a preponderance of the prototypical “J-Horror” films — that is to say, films of a somewhat supernatural nature, starring creepy little kids with big eyes. Examples include Ring, Ju-On, and their ilk. I’m not saying they don’t have their merits — both managed to be effective as well as nerve-wrackingly creepy. But it’s spawned a host of imitators, leading us to 2) the American remakes. Both the aforementioned have been remade into American films (with mixed results), and no doubt more are on the way. So we are now faced with an over-saturated market of films that are being remade for a different, Americanized over-saturated market.

Oh, fuck you, Hollywood.

Thankfully, I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about Audition (or Ôdishon, if you wish to be a purist) being remade any time soon. Because while it is a deeply disturbing, wholly engrossing movie, it’s just not paced for the conventional American audience. Based on a novel by Ryū Murakami, Audition is about Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a middle-aged film producer whose wife died several years ago. Sad and dejected, the people in Aoyama’s life are starting to worry about him. His son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), and his business partner, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), both express their growing concern for his growing despondence. It’s part of an overall theme of disaffectedness that pervades the film, giving it an air of gloom from the very beginning — “The whole of Japan is lonely,” Yoshikawa solemnly proclaims early on. Finally, Aoyama relents, confiding to Yoshikawa that he wants to remarry. It’s an odd idea, this one, of remarrying simply to be married again, but more importantly it leads to an exchange that significantly demonstrates a segment of the cultural rift between us. Aoyama wants companionship, but he also wants someone “beautiful, classy and obedient.”

Yoshikawa hatches a scheme that serves two purposes — to assist them professionally, as well as to provide Aoyama with a selection of women to peruse. He puts together a fake movie that they will hold auditions for, allowing women to come in and present themselves to the two, showing off their knowledge and abilities, and leting Aoyama glimpse a broad spectrum. Over the course of the auditions, he becomes enthralled by a slight, delicate young woman named Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Asami is everything he is looking for — intelligent yet demure, beautiful yet fragile, sweet and wholly interested in him. Despite his friend’s words of caution, Aoyama pursues Asami, and the two find themselves more and more drawn to each other.

Alas, this is where the plot summary must end, for to give away anything more is to ruin the luscious, horrifying surprise. Let’s just say that Asami’s past and present rear their ugly heads, and the tale eventually turns into a lurid nightmare featuring child abuse, torture, dismemberment and some truly astonishing and unsettling hallucination/dream sequences. In case that didn’t make it clear, let me state the obvious: Audition is not for the squeamish. It’s not because it’s gory, though there is certainly a good amount of blood. It’s because it’s just flat-out disturbing. It’s also a masterpiece in its own right. The first thing that I noticed when watching it is that the pace is unlike that of most other horror movies. The first 75 minutes is 100% set-up. It’s a somber, meditative pace, forcing you to understand the characters and their relationships. Not everyone is well-developed — Aoyama’s son as well as his assistant are basically stock characters. But it really gives you a prolonged, focused look at the main players…

… so that it can completely pull the rug out from under you in the final 30 minutes. Films such as Audition are what make movie-watching so engrossing. It’s a sparsely directed, seemingly simplistically set up film. Most of the camera work features long, fixed shots, rarely straying from the speaking actor’s face or upper body. In the rare instance where the camera pans around, the sets are minimalist and almost drab. Yet there are artful splashes of color strewn through every scene, making each shot feel slightly jarring and giving the otherwise drab settings a more surreal quality.

The pacing of the first two acts moves at a slow, steady clip, but somewhere around the middle of the second act, you know something is going to go horribly wrong. You don’t know what it is, but random pieces of the puzzle begin to present themselves, casting a pall over every frame. I found myself watching relatively innocuous scenes — Aoyama taking his dog for a walk, or silently sitting in his study with a glass of brandy — and being filled with a sense of stomach-clenching dread. That’s the beauty of Miike’s brutally efficient, tacit direction — it’s a true play in three acts, but the mood feels like it’s sometimes guiding the film’s trajectory. It starts out quiet and even fun at times — the actual audition scenes have some moments of sly, clever humor. The second act brings with it some discovery, as well as a foreboding sense of crawling, slithering anxiousness. Finally, the third act is where the wheels come off, and the bus heads off a cliff into a terrifyingly honest and nasty realm of nightmare. In many ways, Audition is superior to its contemporaries since there are no ghosts (not literal ones, anyway), no spirits or supernatural events. It makes the fear more gripping, creating a sense of paranoia and revulsion that you don’t get when watching computer generated, shark-eyed, lank-haired children.

The inevitable question presents itself, however: what separates directors like Miike from the likes of Eli Roth? And what makes Audition different from the Saw movies? Well, aside from a fundamental gap in directorial finesse and artfulness, Miike creates a more realized world, and one with something to say. There is shock and terror, but not for terror’s sake — it’s not just to gross you out or make you jump. There is much more afoot here — a forthright criticism of sexism and male/female power dynamics, not to mention a frank look at Japanese culture and societal stresses. All of these are dexterously interwoven within a web of love, deceit, familial devotion, loss, loneliness and yes, horror. After watching it once, and getting over your initial urge to curl into a ball and whimper for a bit, watch it again simply to see all of the parts assemble themselves into a cohesive statement. It makes the eventual stunning unraveling all the more satisfying.

Audition is certainly not for everyone — that’s part of the allure of the Twisted Masterpieces series in the first place. To call it twisted is almost an understatement. But at the same time, it’s not unnecessarily gory, and sometimes its most effective parts involve none of the conventional horror devices — there is an amazing scene of Asami simply sitting on the floor, watching an old rotary phone that made me want to crawl out of my skin, not to mention a sex scene that shows no sex, no sense of the erotic at all, no nothing really, that was so uncomfortable that I could barely sit still through it. That’s not to say that there aren’t scenes of blood and terror, but (and I realize this doesn’t make sense) it’s such a quiet, methodical carnage that it’s far more frightening than any torture porn. In the end, that’s what makes it ultimately so satisfying.

TK can be found wandering aimlessly through suburban Massachusetts, wondering how the hell he got there while yelling at the kids on his lawn. You can find him raising the dead in preparation for world domination at Uncooked Meat.

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Audition / TK

July 2, 2008 |

TK Burton is the Editorial Director. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.


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