Critically acclaimed yet highly misunderstood, Audition (1999) is arguably Takashi Miike’s most brilliant film. Based on Ryu Murakami’s book of the same name, it has been referred to variously as social commentary, horror, and even torture porn. Miike insists the film defies genre, his main motivation in filmmaking being to provoke the viewer into questioning his/her own feelings. Exemplifying the extreme reactions that develop out of the conflict between disengagement with people and surroundings and the need to belong to someone or someplace, Miike’s morally ambiguous protagonists in Audition relate a dark tale of emotional insecurity, guilt, and fear-driven obsession culminating in an unforgettable portrayal of violence.
Ryo Ishibashi plays Aoyama Shigeharu, a middle aged widower who owns a video production company. After several years of being alone, he decides to try dating again, but doesn’t know where to begin. His best friend, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), suggests he interview perspective brides in the guise of a film audition. Aoyama’s stereotyped qualities of the perfect woman are ridiculously high but he seems to have found a candidate in former dancer turned actress, Yamazaki Asami (Eihi Shiina) Ever so slowly we watch the pair’s relationship develop. In interviews Miike has admitted he deliberately set out to lull the viewer nearly to boredom during the first half of the movie. Even lighting and pale colors combined with steady, symmetrically framed camera shots suggest balance and a sense of well being, all of which is a clever set-up designed to intensify the discomfort and shock of the second half.
Yoshikawa has some misgivings about Asami, prompting him to conduct a background check. Apparently most of the information Asami has provided is either false or unverifiable, all of which he confides to Aoyama. In spite of his friend’s warnings, Aoyama continues to see Asami, quickly becoming consumed by sexual obsession and guilt over what he sees as betrayal of his dead wife. The melodramatic tone begins to flicker uncertainly during the first of two dream sequences that open a doorway into the dark interiors Asami and Aoyama’s psyches, while posing as many questions about the reality of each character’s experiences and motivations as they answer.
Subtle changes in editing, lighting and framing begin to intensify and quicken as the film moves forward. By its conclusion, the look of the film has changed dramatically as it spirals to its ambiguous, unsettling end. The genius of all this misdirection resides in Miike’s capacity to challenge the viewer’s ability to pinpoint just where the movie changed, in effect ratcheting up the tension to uncomfortable levels by actively exploiting the viewer’s own confusion.
Perhaps most disturbing is the paradox that is Asami. Demure, fragile and violently unhinged, she is eerily embodied in a spectacular performance by Eihi Shiina. Portrayed with haunting subtlety and sweet facial expressions, she is absolutely terrifying as she methodically executes her violent fetishes. More disturbing than visceral, the shocking acts are never fully depicted. Miike shows just enough to really unsettle. The true horror of this film lies in the realistic premise of the film and the contradiction between what appears on the surface and what lies beneath. That said, Audition contains undeniably brutal scenes and is a difficult film to watch. Miike demands viewers question their responses to extreme content, in effect asking, how much is enough? Finely, crafted, intelligently directed with unforgettable performances it is one of the most important films in contemporary Japanese cinema of this decade.