The films of Takashi Miike were unknown to most in the 1990’s, so for many his 1999 film Audition was their first introduction to his work. The workman director made a minor name for himself in Japan during the decade for prolific output, which mostly consisted of direct-to-video yakuza films. For people like me, it was their first Miike experience and the effect it had was somewhat profound. At the time it’d been awhile since I’d seen anything as twisted and hard hitting. It left an afterthought of dark things lurking in the back of my head for some time afterwards – even beyond a post-cinema trip to the pub.
The film follows Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), a widower in his middle age with a teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) struggling with feelings of loneliness who is prompted by his son to start seeing women again. Not knowing how to meet women, Shigeharu engineers a fake audition thanks to a film producer friend. Here he gets to interview a variety of women but is taken by Asami (Eihi Shiina), a young girl whom he connects with at more than a superficial level. The pair start dating but Shigeharu’s film producer friend voices concern as he’s tried to do some background checks on her only to find she’s a mystery. In the meantime Shigeharu and Asami are getting closer, and he’s ready to propose marriage when she then vanishes. Shigeharu tries to track her down using what little he’s found out about her and discovers an increasingly grotesque trail of mystery and horror that ends up in an ending that’s utterly, terribly, dreadfully horrible.
What makes Audition work is how ordinary the first 40 minutes or so of the film are. Yes, the audition idea to find a woman is a bit creepy but Shigeharu is always presented as a decent, if desperately lonely man trying to find love. Asami is odd, but the viewer can write this off as being shy perhaps. The pacing for this part of the film ventures nearly into reverse as the slow boredom of Shigeharu’s life is made clear, but Miike gradually adds more and more small details to make what’s coming all the more menacing.
When I first saw Audition it was at Bristol art cinema The Watershed, which was full of people who were there because it was a Japanese language film billed as a thriller. Around two-thirds of the way through people started shuffling around uncomfortably, and during the prolonged scenes of torture people left. The film had repulsed people, but this is what Audition does; it employs a relatively normal scenario before shattering the expectations and assumptions of viewers if they’re walking in relatively unaware of what they’re going to see.
The film has been interpreted as both misogynist and feminist. It’s been bestowed as high art and disregarded as exploitation. Others have even cited it as a bit of both. It was a trendsetter in the movement that would go on to become known as ‘torture porn’ and as such, it’s often been allocated the moniker. Whatever your thoughts on Audition are there’s no denying how influential it’s been on the horror genre. Sure, it might have inspired the craze of mindless torture films the following decade, but it’s a film which lends credibility to the genre and still has people talking about it nearly 20 years later.
Audition is a genuine horror masterpiece. It’s a film that starts out as a borderline romantic comedy which goes on to veer into a tour de force of violently deranged terror. But Audition is a film which exceeds categorisation; it’s far more than violence and cruelty for the sake of shock value, even though it is most definitely ‘shocking.’ Miike took expectations, flipped them on their head, then battered the audience around the head with them. Audition is an indelibly disturbing experience. But it’s an exercise in audience manipulation at its most enthralling.