Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Audition (Odishon) (Takashi Miike 1999)

"This movie's creeping me out."
-Rob Zombie

(Warning: although this essay, like all of the Jamespeak essays on horror films, contains spoilers, I highly recommend you do not read this entry unless you have already seen the film or have absolutely no intention of doing so [which of course then begs the question, "Why do you want to read an essay on a film you have no interest in seeing?"])

Some reading this may not consider Takashi Miike's 1999 film about a widower hosting a set of auditions for a phony film to find a new wife a horror film per se. On the other hand, some reading this may consider Audition so scary, so disturbing, so unsettling, that no other label could possibly apply.

Audition is tough to categorize (supernatural thriller doesn't work, neither does suspense, nor mystery) as well as summarize (it's almost as open-ended, ambiguous, and open to interpretation as anything David Lynch has made).

Miike's film offers either an indictment of how men abuse and objectify women, a portrait of male paranoia about seemingly nice and "normal" girlfriends turning insane, a masterful technical exercise in building suspense and dread, or all three.

Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a middle-aged widower who lost his wife to illness seven years prior. His 17-year-old son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), plans to move out when he finishes school and worries about his father being alone, so he suggests he begin dating again. So, Aoyama's film producer friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) comes up with a plan to hold a mock-audition, in which young, beautiful women would audition for the "part" of Aoyama's new wife, under the impression that they are auditioning for a new film, but actually so Aoyama can marry the winning girl. Aoyama is immediately taken with Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina), a very sweet and shy young woman.

In her audition, Asami says that she was once a ballerina, but had to permanently give up dancing due to an injury. This caused her to be suicidal for a time, but is apparently now picking up the pieces of her life. Since Aoyama is still grieving over his wife's death, he becomes strongly attracted to the sad yet resilient Asami.

So far, the story - and style - of the film is ostensibly Sleepless in Seattle transplanted to Tokyo: a romantic comedy/drama through and through. There is no indication whatsoever that we're watching a horror film. Although Aoyama's plan may not be the most ethical way to find a new wife, Ishibashi plays him with such sadness and sincerity that he never seems sinister; he really is the Nicest Guy in the World. Also, Shiina plays Asami with such soft vulnerability you can't help but care for her as well; she really is the Sweetest Girl in the World.

Then things change when Aoyama decides to call Asami for a date.

As he calls and waits for her to answer, we see Asami sitting on the floor in her tiny apartment, her head down, listening to the phone ring. In the background is a large burlap sack. The phone keeps ringing. She doesn't move. Then the sack lurches forward as a guttural human noise belches from it. (This sequence starts around the minute-and-a-half mark:)

It's here where the movie turns. The audience gets a slowly mounted feeling of dread and the thought: "This is not the story I thought it was," not only occurs, but builds after Asami literally disappears after - during? - she and Aoyama consummate their relationship later in the film.

What makes Audition such an effective film is that you never know quite where it's going, even though it's been building to its conclusion all along. In fact, I remember the first time I saw this movie I could have sworn I read the wrong description. (Even though I was expecting a horror film and was getting a romance, I became so absorbed in watching the two characters' relationship develop I no longer cared.)

After Asami disappears, Aoyama tries to track her down. During his sleuthing, he finds some things about Asami that makes him think she may not be the innocent darling he perceived her as.

At the old ballet studio where Asami claims to have trained, Aoyama finds a disabled old man in a wheelchair with artificial feet who reveals that he sexually assaulted Asami as a child. He then goes to the bar where Asami used to work, which has been closed for a year because the woman who was in charge was found dismembered with wire. When the police put her body back together, they found thirteen fingers, three ears, and two tongues.

Unable to find her, Aoyama goes home, has a drink, and then faints.

It turns out Asami was waiting for Aoyama and has drugged him. She's now prepared to slowly - and delicately - torture and dismember him.

Before getting to the torture sequence, the movie cuts to a series of bizarre and gruesome images either revealing Asami's past or what Aoyama imagines to be her past, based on his discoveries (the burlap sack opening to reveal a naked man missing his feet, tongue, ear and fingers is a particularly unsettling sight).

Asami is apparently the victim of years of systematic physical and sexual abuse from a number of people from her past.

When Aoyama comes to from this montage of nightmarish and seemingly disconnected scenes, Asami injects him with a serum that paralyzes his body but keeps his nerves awake (so he can experience the pain thoroughly). She then sticks needles into his chest and under the eyelids then flicks them. Finally, she cuts off his left foot with a sharp wire (not unlike piano wire).

During all this, she explains the reason why she is doing this is because he is just like everyone else: he is unable to love only her. See, he has a deceased wife (whom he will always love), a son (whom she plans to kill as well), and a dog (whom she has killed), so he will never truly be hers.

"I only have you," she explains. "But you have so many others."

That Aoyama is the Nicest Guy in the World makes it difficult to side with Asami's indictments, no matter how valid they are. That he now has giant needles sticking out of his eyes that Asami flicks also makes it problematic.

Miike constantly plays with audience expectations throughout the movie, creating doubt as to what exactly is real and what is the result of a fevered dream (a la Sam Lowry's "escape" at the end of Terry Gilliam's Brazil or the final 20 minutes of Lynch's Mulholland Dr.).

Audition takes its time establishing believable and likable characters, setting up events that go from believable to nightmarish, and steadily building tension to make the final 15 minutes of the film absolutely terrifying.

This is definitely not a film for the squeamish (seriously, folks: even Rob Zombie finds this movie disturbing).

Revealing why I never date,

James "I Don't Like Needles" Comtois

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Blogger Paul Rekk said...

James, I haven't seen this one yet (seriously, man, spoiler warnings are like big neon "READ ME" signs to these eyes), but have you seen any other Miike? Where would you place this in that wide, wacky rainbow that is his oeuvre?

I loved The Great Yokai War and Happiness of the Katakuris was fun little slice of something. But the only Miike 'splatter' I've seen -- Ichi the Killer -- really turned me off. It wasn't the ultra-violence that bothered me, but the unrelenting viciousness by everyone and everything towards everyone and everything. I've been a little Miike gun-shy since then.

Any thoughts or suggestions?

3:01 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Hey, Paul. I really have gotten a lot of flack for this warning sign. I'm wondering whether or not to alter it or just leave it to taunt visitors of this site.

Truth be told, this is the first, and to date, only Miike film I've seen. I didn't find Audition to be either cruel or mean-spirited, despite it playing with audience expectations. (I'd also be hard-pressed to classify it as a "splatter" film, although I admit that I'm finding it tough to classify Audition at all.) The hero is still very likable and sympathetic, despite his whole "scheme" to get a wife. It's actually a very human/humane movie (albeit very unsettling).

I should point out that, if you're interested, you can actually watch Audition in 8-10 minute chunks on YouTube. Who knows how long that'll last, though...

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think Aoyama is that likeable. He had an affair with his secretary and he had women audition for the part of his wife. Come on...

12:33 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh, no, he’s hardly perfect. His methods for finding a bride are unethical, although let’s face it: there are so many romantic comedies out there where the romantic lead lands his or her romantic conquest based on a similar form of deceit (and only has to deal with minor penance).

However, this is definitely a case where the punishment (if we are to interpret the torture scene as really happening and not just a paranoid dream/cold feet fantasy) most certainly does not fit the crime (it’s not like Asami is dying to be in this supposed film).

Although Aoyama is severely flawed, I find him most certainly likable, if not sympathetic. Ryo Ishibashi plays him with a great deal of pathos that makes it hard to root for his torturing.

12:45 AM  

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