AUDITION : A Cautionary Tale
“Even if I give you my entire self, you’ll never give me yours.”
I leap at the opportunity to revisit cinema, I and the film both refreshed and weathered by years, wondering what will seem different, what is remembered or forgotten, what will surface or recede, impress or disappoint, terrify or move me, how will the lens of the current moment skew my perception of the material, how will may age change my understanding? This year marks the 20th anniversary of Miike Takashi’s unforgettable polarizing film Audition which premiered at the 1999 Rotterdam Film Festival and exploded an already prolific but isolated career. Arrow Video has put together a fantastic Blu Ray edition, available february 12th, making it a timely re-visitation for numerous reasons, not least of which is to join the celebrations of Women in Horror Month (now in its 10th year). All hail Shiina Eihi, whose debut as Asami in Audition is spellbinding in its opacity, modulation and eventual sadism.
By now, Miike Takashi has 100+ films under his belt, and directs an average of three per year, making it extremely hard to keep up with the manic auteur (look out for his balls-to-the-wall sci-fi Terra Formars from Arrow in April). Though many titles can be found on dvd, they constitute a mere fraction of an expansive oeuvre. Most of his works are not released in the US (cheers however to his recent Samurai era trilogy of films which had limited theatrical runs, making him one of only a handful of Japanese Directors to make the grade, so to speak), such that the true breadth of his talents aren’t really known here in the States (myself included). Even the festival circuit tends to only proliferate his more extreme visions. Miike’s opinion: he’s fine with that. I’ve only banked a handful of his works throughout the years, each one a disturbed, coarse and unshakable experience. It was 15 years ago that I saw Izo at the Philadelphia International Film Festival and I still feel like I am spilling out into dimension after dimension, ragged, rabid, confused and soaked in showers of arterial blood splatter. 2017 introduced me to some of his seminal works, also through Arrow, from which I still feel slightly soiled. It is with a mix of excitement and hesitation that I now revisit Audition, 15 years after first seeing it as a nascent cinephile. Hesitation because the mere recollection of its more infamous moments causes one to wince with their entire body. Excitement… for perhaps the same reason.
Recent widower Aoyama Shigeharu ( Ishibashi Ryo The Grudge, Suicide Club) is advised by his precocious and optimistic teenage son Shigehiko (Sawaki Tetsu All About Lily Chou-Chou) to find a new wife because he looks so “worn out”, so he seeks the advice of colleague Yoshikawa (Kunimura Jun), having been out of the dating scene for many years. They take advantage of their position in a film company by staging an audition for a film that may-or-may-not be made to find the “perfect woman”. Even before they interview a series of women, Shigeharu becomes enchanted by Asami (Shiina Eihi Tokyo Gore Police) through her openhearted essay and resume, her persistence in the face of tragedy which he identifies with. She, a quiet 24-year-old ex-ballet dancer, is immediately responsive to his charms. The two begin to date, take dinners with one another, build a rapport. But soon things take a very dark and twisted turn as we find that Asami isn’t what she seems to be, that her past is populated by grim shadows, and what we see we may not be able to trust as reality. From that uncertainty may issue the film’s most profound horror. (Arrow Video)
As I suggested, revisiting Audition at this juncture in time feels essential, if not natural. Its incisive and twisted exploration of male anxiety and toxicity was prescient of the recent societal discourse about gender roles, the various possible shades of sexual misconduct, and overall deconstruction of the poisonous romantic expectations that guide our objectifications and perpetual disappointments. Audition considers how a character like Shigeharu, well-mannered, sensitive, boyish even, can also be a steward of toxicity (implicated further by a possible workplace indiscretion in the recent past), his mind revealed to be inextricably wired to conjure a perverse and fearful premonition when faced with the chasm between himself and a young woman, when contemplating the unknowable past of a potential new lover and confronting the specter of his deceased wife.
The audition itself, conducted by Yoshikawa and Shigeharu (constituting perhaps the only humor of the film, though it is also sickening) presented to me a strong analogue to the now primacy of dating apps in our culture, to the extent that we all seem to be auditioning each other for the pretense that is the self we present on these forums. As authors of our own idealized images, stewards of our own time and the privilege of our company, gatekeepers of our pasts, we wield an unprecedented power of distanced appraisal, and are also unprecedentedly appraised. Are we staging our own auditions for films we’re never going to make, people we are not and won’t become? What would Audition look like now, were it made in this technological moment. How would the sickness present itself, and how would the anxieties be shown for their potential horror? Would it look much the same? “All I know about her is from her resume” Yoshikawa says, suddenly cautious of Asami and of Shigeharu’s inability to “handle her”. Like a the cynical shark he is, he can smell the blood in the water, can sense the warped shadow of his own creation creeping around the corner.
Resonating throughout the pretextual audition process is an unmistakable echo of the #metoo movement, a cautionary tale that makes a consequent nightmare of such power-imbalanced misogyny in the industry and society at large. As Tony Rayns astutely remarks - in what might be his best interview to date for Arrow to date - “Feminism” in Japan (currently 110th out of 144 countries on World Economic Forum’s Gender Equality Ranking) is framed as sympathy FOR women AS they suffer, not as an effort to interrupt the machinations that CREATE and SUSTAIN that suffering. As such, Audition is told overwhelmingly from Aoyama’s perspective, and indeed we are meant to sympathize with him even though we rebuke his decisions. We understand his motivations, we know his sad circumstances, we appreciate his half-hesitancy to enter into this whole ill-advised mess, we feel his elation at the possibility of love which makes him seem momentarily young to us, we are warmed by his single-fatherhood, and thus we gasp in incredible horror at the eventual consequences rather than revel in them. That nuance however does not exonerate Shigeharu. Indeed, whether what “happens” truly happens or not, Shigeharu is co-author of this cruelty. Miike says as much on the commentary track. He is the recipient of a retribution that subsumes him as a representative victimizer. In that way, the film must be told largely from his perspective, so that the caution and culpability is thusly read. It also makes us truly question the solidity of the ground. My favorite shot in the entire film is one of Shigeharu washing the dishes. We watch him from behind, scrubbing dishes, the camera static. It is the single most mundane image, shown in the most mundane way, and thus it is the truest point of gravity, of normalcy, almost rivetingly so. All the chaos spins around this moment to me, a single father washing dishes because it was “his turn”, as his son smilingly reminds him. This person’s mind may also be capable of the most sinister visions, and perhaps the most powerful self-haterd.
By contrast Asami is given to us (one might say posited) as a mystery, her past fragmentary, her vulnerability slightly sinister. She is opaque, curious, just shy of sullen. But slowly we learn. Slowly we come to understand her interiority, her damage and mistrust… or at least we think that we do. Audition employs a progressively kaleidoscopic expression of time and events, executed sharply and swiftly, making its entirety a question, rendering every moment unsafe, both in the sense of potential danger and in the sense of being possibly unmoored from reality. In any case, Asami’s opacity makes her both fearful and alluring, though curiously as the heretofore “object of desire”, she is not overtly sexualized. She is not ostensibly or persistently seductive in affect or action. To make her any more corporeal than she is, or to make her manipulative in that particular way would have undermined the film and its integrity as a commentary, as well as undermine the sympathy we have for her even while witnessing her brutality. Truly, her periods of absence are often the most terrifying. In those spaces, the nightmare is the darkest, the most unwieldy.
“All words are lies. But pain doesnt lie. You see? When you’re in pain you see your own shape clearly. Only when you’re in extreme pain do you understand your own mind ”.
These words are chilling to hear. Issuing from Asami’s pleasant smiling face, almost gleeful in what she is then doing to Shigeharu, they are all the more chilling. Consider however that she is only communicating the lessons she has been taught by men (by extension the pervasive unchecked misogyny of an entire society). Asami’s sadism is but a focused reflection of the damages inflicted upon her by men. Her one joy, Ballet, mutated into her source of greatest suffering by a man. In short, “they created a monster”. A beautiful, placid-faced sadistic monster. Asami is therefore a function of her experiences, and the agents of those experiences are her Dr. Frankenstein in concert.
Seen one way, Audition is the horrific distillation of anxieties between the genders, expressed in a manner so upsetting, so physical, and as a whole so psychological one might hope for it to live as a cautionary tale. If these anxieties, manifest as a man’s supremely paranoid, guilty and demented imaginings, are the truth of the film, then Shigeharu is symptomatic of a society that teaches men to live in fear of women, to fear even more so the interior being of women who have been subject to the forces of an abusive patriarchy, making Shigeharu as twisted up inside as we imagine Asami to be. Perhaps Asami is herself an agent of Shigeharu’s own damage. As Cher observes in Moonstruck while chastising a one-handed Nicolas Cage for his woeful self-pity:
“That woman didn’t leave you, ok? You can’t see what you are and I see everything. You’re a wolf. […] That woman was a trap for you, she caught you and you couldn’t get away so you chewed off your own foot. […] And now you’re afraid because you know the big part of you is a wolf that has the courage to bite off your own foot.” …Is Asami the manifestation of that wolf for Shigeharu, or is she the trap? Is she both, or neither?
No matter how one looks at Audition, whether it is all real or imagined, part dream or part reality, or all real, whether we focus on Asami or Shigeharu, whether we consider events literal or metaphorical, this is a story of trauma, guilt, grief, and self-destruction. It is a microcosmic indictment of a society that is sick and lonely - sick because it is lonely, lonely because it is sick - mistreating and fearful of one another, if not also ourselves, as we contain both angel and demon.
And don’t turn a blind eye to young Shigehiku’s interest in Paleontology… nor his concurrent budding interest in girls…there’s something there. Something significant.
More to the point of the new edition itself, Arrow has officially convinced me of something… reversible covers are delightful. It is one of the things that gets me excited about owning a disc nowadays (that, and I’m a sucker for all things “first pressing only”). Matthew Griffin’s shadowy distressed illustration brings us right to the dark heart of the story, using texture and an absence of color to signal the trajectory and mood of the film. Its abstraction and tone leave things to the imagination and honors the opaqueness of Asami’s character, whereas the alternate original cover, bright orange and photographic is eye-catching but perhaps too precise an image for one hoping to preserve some surprise. That said, I love the two in contrast to one another, one dark one bright, one indicative one implicating. I never thought I would find myself switching the cover of a disc based on mood, but here I am… The interviews on this edition, produced by Marc Walkow, have constituted some of my favorite to date. They feel exceptionally personal and illuminate the experiences of those who worked with Miike on this film and others. The ever-scholarly Tom Mes, author of two books on Miike provides a wealth of information on his new commentary track, but my nod for best supplement is the appreciation by Tony Rayns, who in fact had the honor of presenting Audition at its 1999 premier at Rotterdam.
Special Edition Contents
• Brand new 2K restoriation of original vault elements.
• Original 5.1 Dolby Surround Audio
• Optional English subtitles
• Audio commentary with director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan
• Brand new commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes examining the film and its source novel
• Introduction by Miike
• Ties that Bind – A brand new interview with Takashi Miike
• Interviews with stars Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Renji Ishibashi and Ren Osugi
• Damaged Romance: An appreciation by Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns
• Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Matthew Griffin
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Illustrated collector's booklet featuring new writing on the film by Anton Bitel