Director: Takashi Miike
Written: Daisuke Tengan
I have to admit it took time to decide whether to review this movie or not. The reason being that it took some time to recover from this movie. “Audition” is probably the most disturbing film I have ever seen. I assume for viewers who have seen the director’s other highly controversial film, “Ichi the Killer,” this comes as no surprise (though “Audition” is an older piece). However, if you have not seen “Ichi,” then be warned, the images from “Audition” will stay with you for a long time.
The story develops slowly. Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower, raising a son by himself. At one point, his teen son encourages him to get remarried. Shigeharu discusses the idea with his friend, a film producer. He explains that he would not like an arranged marriage, but to “see many women, and then choose my ideal one.” The friend comes up with an idea to accommodate this request. They will hold an audition for a film, with the true intent of finding the perfect match for Shigeharu. As their project progresses, Shigeharu reads the applications of many candidates, but one really captures his eye. Asami (Eihi Shiina) is 24 years old, beautiful and sweet, but what mostly catches Shigeharu’s interest is her personal story about ballet. She was a classical ballet dancer until she suffered a hip injury. She explains, “Ballet was my priority, so my dream collapsed. It might sound exaggerated, but it’s like accepting death.” During the audition, they see a number of women, but Shigeharu has his eyes on Asami, and later invites her for a date. He does it despite a warning from his producer friend, who says
Can’t say exactly what’s wrong. I just don’t like her.
Eventually Shigeharu decides to propose to his new young love while on a weekend getaway. At this point, the movie changes. Asami mysteriously disappears after supposedly sleeping with him the first night (though it was not clear if it really happened). He wakes up in the hotel feeling groggy and disoriented, and is told by the front desk that his guest has left. Shigeharu tries to find her through the few contacts she gave on a resume, but he encounters dead ends and abandoned places. A bar where Asami said she worked, the Stone Fish, had been closed for a year after the owner was found murdered. A neighbor to the bar told Shigeharu that it was a real mystery. The owner had been cut to pieces, but police found some additional body parts from who knows where. The ballet school Asami attended was closed, with just with one strange footless man in a wheelchair playing the piano. The movie later shows Asami gleefully decapitating this man with a garrote, her weapon of choice. Shigeharu comes back home, all torn up about his loss, but Asami is waiting for him there, and it does not lead to a happy ending…
“Audition” could be classified as a torture movie, and it does have pretty imaginative torture scenes. It is definitely not the typical mindless “blood-for-the-sake-of-blood” Hollywood film, seeming more like a psychological thriller. It has one underlying main theme that makes it a sort of feminist film. A very obscure one and taken to the absolute extremes, but I would still classify it as a feminist film. To explain my assumption, I will have to deconstruct the movie, so for the reader who wants to avoid spoilers, you should not read further.
The first half of the movie is from an ultimate male perspective. Women are objectified on many occasions, the most extreme being the audition. When Shigeharu talks about his desired marriage, he talks about all the qualities his woman should possess, hoping that a nice woman is just “hiding somewhere.” At one point, a group of young women in a bar are laughing and talking loudly. His friend glares at them with disgust:
Awful girls. No class and stuck up. Stupid as well. Where are all the good girls?
When Shigeharu looks through the resumes of auditioning girls, he says to his friend on the phone, “It’s like buying my first car.” His friend laughs and replies, “Don’t mix your car and your wife.” During the audition, girls have to sit on a chair in the middle of the room, and answer all kinds of questions while the two men look at them with superiority and judgment. Shigeharu feels some unease at times about the arranged future wife picking, but ultimately, both men seem to consider this as their natural right and entitlement. Even when Shigeharu starts dating Asami, she has to wait for his call, and he is the one that leads their relationship. During their weekend getaway, however, Asami takes her clothes off and urges, “Please. Look at my body.” After arousing his carnal desire, she knows that she has him. At this point, the perspective of the movie changes, as does the power balance. It is Shigeharu who runs after Asami trying to find her, madly in love. Even after encountering weird and unsettling things in his path, he still goes after the object of his desire. But from the spectator point of view, now he is an object, being watched by Asami, who is hiding around, stalking him.
Usually in torture movies, it is women’s bodies that are eroticized though sadistic fantasy. Here in “Audition” though, we have a gender reversal. Asami drugs Shigeharu’s alcohol, and he becomes paralyzed, but with his nerves still sensitive. So even being smaller and weaker, she is still in the control position. She takes acupuncture needles, sits on top of him, and starts pushing them into the most painful points of his body. She keeps repeating, “Deeper, deeper, deeper,” as if it was an act of penetration, a perverse and reversed sexual act. Shigeharu’s body becomes the object of her play and sadistic pleasure.
Just before Shigeharu falls from the effects of the drugs, he experiences a dream-like sequence, which I find the most disturbing part of the film, even more so than the torture scene. During it, we get other details of the story that we did not know before. First, we get to know why his female coworker (subordinate by hierarchy) had been acting so weird around him. Apparently Shigeharu slept with her once, and she was waiting for him to do something more, maybe make a move, but he does not. This woman was exactly kind of a “nice woman” that he described to his friend, and was trying convincing himself he was looking for. However, instead he goes for a girl twice as young as him and that he barely knows. We also see a sexual fantasy of Shigeharu and his son’s teen girlfriend. Earlier in the movie we saw him giving his son thumbs-up for his choice of the pretty girl. Now we see a hidden Freudian fantasy, of which Shigeharu would not admit even to himself. This all shows the incongruence of the actual desires of a person and what is socially accepted and expected.
During the climactic torture, Asami states that they make auditions just to fail the girls and then have sex with them. Her assumption is very precise. For Shigeharu, her resume was most appealing because she had the trauma of losing ballet. She seemed so fragile, broken, and in need of male support, that he could easily feel superior. By comparison, the other women were too self-assured and confident, therefore too intimidating.
During the dream sequence, we get to see what is in the mysterious bag that had been lying around and moving in Asami’s apartment throughout the movie. It was another middle-aged male, who I assume was the manager of the company Asami said she had worked for, and who had gone missing a year ago. His body is mutilated, and she keeps him more like a pet. I am not sure if this is what the director meant in this scene, but I saw is as an extreme gender reversal – a perverse version of a male housewife.
Japan is traditionally a male dominated society. This movie could be seen as an extreme outcry against this subjugation of women. Considering its vivid scenes of imagined horror, it would not (normally) be presented in any feminist movement festivals. Nevertheless, I could see its appeal if you can get beyond the disturbing parts. As a psychological horror suspense movie, it’s brilliant. But the question that begs answering is does it go too far? Well, “too far” is subjective, therefore I can say: watch the movie at your own risk and decide for yourself.