Audition ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“This wire can cut through flesh and bone easily.”

There is a large canvas bag on the floor. It is tied with rope. Inside it, a living thing moves violently.

Before Audition descends into a maelstrom of hallucination and shocking violence, it moves along placidly as a domestic melodrama in the vein of Ozu or Sirk. The premise is skeevy, of course: Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), seven years a widower and living with his teenage son, is encouraged by both his son and his friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimara), to venture back into the dating world. Yoshikawa—winner of the Mel Gibson gender relations award—suggests that Aoyama find his new bride by staging a fake casting audition for the lead role in a romantic comedy. But the poise and solemnity with which the material is handled suggests nothing of the Lynchian nightmare to come.

Nothing except for that bag. As Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina) waits by the phone in her barren apartment, slumped over like a specter awaiting an incantation, that large bag sits ominously. Asami waits and waits—for how long, we do not know, though it is at least a full day—until the phone rings. Aoyama’s call beckons her and stirs the beast within that terrifying bag. What hath God wrought, indeed.

That poise plays an integral part in giving Audition’s denouement its perverse kick, and is entirely unexpected from director Takashi Miike. Nuance and restraint are not the first words one would apply to Miike, a filmmaker whose work has included a woman giving birth to a full-grown man, a man suspended from large hooks piercing his back while being doused in scalding oil, and lactation sex (which is, for better or worse, exactly what it sounds like). Working at a furious clip (sometimes making as many as six movies a year), Miike’s films are exercises in boundary pushing with widely varying, sometimes slapdash results. But Miike is undeniably talented, and when his energies are channeled (as they are in Audition), the results can be blistering.

What makes Audition so harrowing and memorable where so many other spurned lover films are forgettable is more than just its finale (though that alone would earn it a spot deep in any viewer’s memory bank). Where most other such films take the form of a revenge flick in which an overtly evil male predator is handed his comeuppance (e.g., I Spit on Your Grave) or a psycho stalker thriller in which a woman has the gall to interpret a man’s sexual advances as an invitation to further conversation (e.g., Fatal Attraction), Audition, like the deceptively quiet Asami, goes deeper, deeper, deeper, taking on society as a whole.

Miike’s first stroke of brilliance is to make Aoyama a complicated individual. He seems a kind man, soft-spoken, well-mannered. He loved his departed wife and has raised a seemingly good son. He is uneasy with the fake audition proposed by the leering Yoshikawa. But he is also dismissive of women, not thinking of them except insofar as they relate to him. He barely acknowledges his housekeeper (except to fantasize about her sexually). He is uncomprehending of the strained relationship with his assistant occasioned by their one night stand. His qualifications for a wife involve someone deferential and subservient—he prefers his women Milford Academy-trained, and he signs off on the audition ruse. His quietude and civility mask a deep-seated subconscious sexism with which he need not wrestle given its tacit societal stamp of approval. But he is not a bad man so much as a good man operating within a system of bad incentives.

Asami, so still and meek, dressed head to toe in virginal white, is Aoyama’s dream come true. A former ballet dancer recovering from a traumatic past, she embodies all of Aoyama’s most-prized virtues: refinement, demureness, a calm eagerness to please. Their initial courtship is almost amusing in its fumbling nature. But Aoyama, convinced of his perspicacity, is blinded not just by love, as his son suggests, but by an image. His audition brought him an actress, alright. Asami has a story of her own to tell.

The hallucinations and jumbled chronology of Audition’s final third call into question exactly which parts of Asami and Aoyama’s courtship are real and which parts are a drugged Aoyama’s attempts to fill in the blanks in his opaque lover’s background. What is clear is that Asami was a neglected child, horribly abused by at least one man and perhaps more. Her desire to be loved brought only pain, and eventually she learned to harness that pain to what, for her, were productive ends. She accepted death and never felt unhappy, for she was always unhappy. The world told her that good girls were still and quiet and did what men said, so she learned to turn those liabilities into assets.

And therein lies Miike’s second stroke of brilliance: Nothing is more terrifying than a tranquil, soft-spoken person calmly perpetrating acts of violence. Asami’s composure lends a dreamlike quality, a clinical surreality to her torturous endeavors. As she drives needles into Aoyama’s eyes (“Kiri kiri kiri kiri kiri!”) and severs his feet, her attire has a vague S&M air to it—no surprise, since for her love has consistently taken the form of pain.

That Asami is unhinged and metes out punishment wildly disproportionate to Aoyama’s crimes goes without saying, but what makes Audition so unnerving is that her actions stem from a coolly logical place. Hers is the unfettered application of an understandable worldview, wherein predation is a means of survival and a rebalancing of the scales. It’s only a few steps removed from Aoyama’s implementation of an entitled worldview in which hunting for a submissive wife through dishonesty is acceptable. Each party auditioned the other for suitability to their respective ends.

In the end, Aoyama and Asami are each crippled by their adherence to untenable codes of conduct, as broken and bloodied as Miike’s audience. His patience and solemnity pay off in the long run, steering the viewer to a carefully negotiated paralysis. A good director can cut through flesh and bone easily.

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