The world was a much more innocent place back in 1999. Takashi Miike already had 34 films to his name before Audition became his breakout hit, even whilst seeing him branded “sick” by a disgusted audience member at the film’s otherwise successful screening at the Rotterdam film festival. Based on the book of the same name by Japan’s master of the nasty psychological thriller Ryu Murakami, Audition is the twisted romantic nightmare to end all twisted romantic nightmares.
Aoyama is a widower with an almost grown-up child. Now that his parental responsibilities are changing, and spurred on by his encouraging son, Aoyama perhaps feels ready to move into another phase of his life by considering the idea of getting married again. However, Aoyama is a sensitive and romantic man who’s actually a little naive when it comes to matters of the heart and obviously hasn’t had much experience in the dating world in the last twenty years. He turns to an old friend who happens to be a casting director and comes up with the novel (if somewhat inappropriate) idea of letting Aoyama sit in on an audition to look for a new wife.
In glancing over the headshot resumés, one catches his eye - that of a former ballet dancer who equates having had to abandon her dream of becoming a professional dancer because of an injury with a sort of spiritual death. This deep sense of loss strikes a chord in the widowed Aoyama and despite his friend’s warnings that she gives him the creeps, Asami is the one he’s set his heart on. However, Asami is not the sweet and innocent girl she first appears to be...
In the intervening fifteen years since its original release Audition has amassed something of a reputation, which is to say that viewers will almost certainly be aware of its “extreme” nature. However, Audition arguably works best when seen blind as it begins as a fairly straightforward romantic drama in which a broken-hearted widower begins to live again thanks to the attentions of a shy young woman. Of course, Miike is peppering the otherwise anodyne love story with subtle (and not-so subtle) clues all the way through, planting doubts in our minds right away. Is Aoyama just an old fool who’s lost his head over a young beauty or is he right to grow suspicious in the face of the ever-increasing, yet circumstantial, evidence of Asami’s strangeness?
Is Asami hiding a dark secret, or is Aoyama projecting his fears of romantic entanglements onto her silhouette and therefore creating, in some sense, a villainess worthy of his anxieties? According to Miike himself, Audition is not a horror movie (Japanese horror movies are linked with the supernatural and Audition’s terrors are very much of the real world) - Murakami in fact wrote the book as a strange kind of “love letter” to a woman he had wronged. Miike sought to envisage her reply and gives her an opportunity to offer a series of extremely dark explanations of her own. Neither Aoyama or Asami have been honest with themselves or each other - Aoyama is looking for a cookie cutter ideal to fit into the pre-made box marked “wife”, and well, it would be better not to go into all the various ways Asami has misrepresented herself but she does have a point when she calls Aoyama out on how easy it was to make him fall for her meek and feeble innocent act.
Asami and Aoyama are always working at cross purposes to each other, engaged in a macabre dance where Asami leads by stealth, waltzing Aoyama into her spider’s web of vengeance by neatly subverting his ideas of femininity. However, this is not to cast Asami as a vile temptress or the predatory female born of male fears of emasculation (though these ideas are definitely in play), nor is she an avenging feminist warrior so much as a lonely, damaged woman. At the very end of the film the pair have perhaps reached a kind of understanding as, according to Asami, only in extreme pain does one understand one's own mind. Left maimed and helpless, each is scarred and broken but alive and, perhaps, at peace at last.
Japanese with optional English subtitles.
On disc extras include: Audio commentary with director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan; brand new commentary by Miike biographer Tom Mes; Takashi Miike introduction; 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; and trailers.
The release also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Anton Bitel.