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Takashi Miike’s Audition realized the potential of extreme horror

Looking back the sinister cult film, 20 years later

A woman in a white shirt with black gloves prepares a deadly syringe in Takashi Miike’s Audition Arrow Films

I experienced my first Takashi Miike film, Ichi the Killer, on September 13, 2001. The events of 9/11 cleaved the Toronto Film Festival in half, and while going to a screening seemed strange and frivolous, it was also an opportunity to retreat into a safer kind of darkness.

It was definitely not, however, the ideal time to see my first Takashi Miike movie. So when promotional barf bags were passed through the rows, along with breathless warnings of grotesquerie to come, my nerves carved out a space in the pit of my stomach. As a horror fan, I could handle a lot of brutality and gore, but how much? And is now really the time?

Within 15 minutes, I was ready to bolt for the exits. Miike’s attempt to replicate the extreme violence and sexuality of manga in live-action had already yielded a gruesome assault and rape, followed by a man masturbating in a black latex bodysuit, ending with his semen forming the title animation. But then a strange thing happened: I started laughing. Miike had pushed the limits of representation so far that Ichi the Killer passed over into the absurd and cartoonish that the images could be understood on a different level. The film taught the audience how to watch one of his movies, re-calibrating their responses on the fly. He conjure the most disturbing torture scenario imaginable — a yakuza enforcer pours boiling liquid over a suspended human body, the skin molting and falling to the floor — but puts it in a wholly unexpected context.

Who was this mysterious provocateur? And were all his movies like this?

Two years before Ichi the Killer, Miike produced his masterpiece: Audition, which at the time of the 2001 Toronto Film Festival had only just arrived in the states. Miike had become absurdly prolific, and his six-a-year movie production schedule created chaos in the system, with new titles coming faster than festivals and distributors and moviegoers could process them. In the fury, he achieved cult status.

Miike’s filmography is a wild ride, veering from the apocalyptic battles royale of the Dead or Alive trilogy to the familial deviance of Visitor Q to the musical macabre of The Happiness of the Katakuris. But Audition is special. Both part and apart from the J-horror wave that was sweeping through America, and both part and apart from Miike’s other work, which had approached its extremes but not its level of sophistication and restraint.

Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), and Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) “audition” Asami (Eihi Shiina) for the role of Aoyama’s new lover in Miike’s Audition Arrow Video

The audition of the title is mostly a ruse, set up by Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a widower whose teenage son has encouraged to remarry, and Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a friend of his in the production business. Yoshikawa’s idea is to put out a casting call for a soap opera that will never get made, but will attract thousands of young women vying for the part. Aoyama pores through the applications, winnowing the field to 30 actresses. He’s looking to cast a very particular type for his future bride: someone quiet and prim and pretty, with a background in classical piano or ballet. And from the stack, he’s transfixed by Asami (Eihi Shiina), whose life story moves him, and whose porcelain beauty enchants him. Here’s how Asami is described in Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name:

Aoyama was more or less face to face with her. Her semi-long, lustrous hair was tied back in a casual way. She obviously hadn’t fussed over it, but neither was there anything even remotely untidy about her appearance. Her features weren’t exaggerated or dramatic, but every expression they assumed made a strong, clear impression. Aoyama thought it was as if her soul, or her spirit, or whatever one wanted to call it, lay just below the surface of her skin.

Adapted more or less faithfully from Murakami’s text — albeit littered with macabre elements that are distinctly Miike’s — Audition is a film that could surprise those who know nothing of the director’s work or those who were well-schooled. The only difference is when the movie would surprise each camp: Either you’re blindsided by where a widower’s effort to find a new love leads him or you’re perplexed that his search is so uncharacteristically earnest, whimsical, and — gasp — sentimental. It’s fun to imagine someone watching Audition with no expectations whatsoever, but like Ichi the Killer and a lot of Miike’s work, he’s setting his own context for how viewers can see his movie. The ground shifts from under the viewer’s feet.

In book and film, Aoyama can’t stray from his first impression of Asami, even when Yoshikawa points out discrepancies in her application, which add to the unsettling vibe he got from her audition. But Aoyama follows up as planned and meets Asami for dinner, which she receives with all the graciousness and modesty that he expects from her. He’s convinced that he’s cast the right person and she’s unwittingly playing the role — the real role — that he’s so carefully scripted for her. He’s Jimmy Stewart to her Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a hand-crafted replacement for lover who passed away. Asami may not be an exact double for his late wife, like Madeleine/Judy in Vertigo, but Aoyama exerts a level of control over this courtship that not only blinds him to the gruesome truth of who this mysterious woman really is, but makes him less sympathetic, too. When Audition shifts gears and starts to recalls another Hitchcock classic, Psycho, he’s sowing the seeds that he planted.

Asami murders a man with glasses using a wire saw in Audition Image: Arrow Films

So when Asami turns up in a black leather smock and matching gloves, and goes to work on his lower leg at the achilles, severing it off with a wire saw (“This wire can cut flesh and bone easily”), she’s not 100% in the wrong. And Miike, sinister troll that he is, has the audacity to laugh at the predicament, when Asami blithely tosses the severed part and it hits the outside window with a dull, hilarious thump. While it’s true that Asami’s sense of proportionality is out of whack — the punishment is much worse than the crime, and Aoyama’s poor little beagle certainly doesn’t deserve what it gets — one of the triumphs of Audition is understanding the abuses that lead her to this place and Aoyama’s guilt in perpetuating them.

The most famous moment in Audition is entirely Miike’s creation: Asami sits on the floor across from a telephone, her long hair obscuring her face like the ghost in Ringu. There are indications prior to this scene that Asami isn’t the compliant young woman she appears to be, but when the phone rings and a person tumbles out of a large sack in the background, the jump scare sharply demarcates a change in the film’s direction. The question of who’s in the sack leads to revelations about her past, involving a vile old man with prosthetic feet at the dance studio where she used to train and stories of a grisly murder at a bar where she claimed to work. Miike suggests that she was once on track to be the woman Aoyama wants, flashing back to a little girl training in ballet, but who suffered unimaginable abuse at the hands of older men. Aoyama doesn’t hurt her physically, but his core deceit follows a pattern.

Miike doesn’t abandon poor Aoyama by any means. Audition is told from his perspective, and the audience is intended to sympathize with his horror and pain at Asami’s hands, and feel relieved when the entire ordeal comes to a righteous end. But from the beginning, Audition feels like an act of generational resentment, with Miike thumbing his nose at his elders. Some have compared the early scenes in the film to Yasujiro Ozu, the late Japanese traditionalist who made classics like Tokyo Story and Late Spring, which isn’t quite right, but Miike does stage them with formalist reserve that borders on parody. At a minimum, he feints at a warm-hearted, broadly accessible romantic drama before turning the tables and making a Takashi Miike film. And when Aoyama and Yoshikawa get together at a bar and grumble about the loud young people in the next room, they’re lamenting a way of life that’s passed. The audition is their attempt to turn back the clock and “cast” a young woman who reflects old-fashioned values, someone who knows her place.

There’s no obvious way to interpret everything that happens in Audition. The film doesn’t follow a straight line from Asami’s casting to her emergence as a quietly sadistic angel of vengeance. There’s the possibility that a large portion of the second half takes place entirely in Aoyama’s head, stemming from a weekend getaway with Asami that ends abruptly and with a lot of confusion over what really happened.

That’s what brings the film in line with Miike’s other work, which is often about making audiences uncertain and uncomfortable, and defying their preconceived notions about what a movie can do. It’s full of all-time shocks, but also perplexing layers and surprises. Those with the stomach to watch it more than once will likely have a different experience with it every time.

Twenty years later, Audition looks more than ever like a pivotal moment in international horror, which would soon get flooded by J-horror like Ringu and The Grudge (and their Hollywood facsimiles), an extreme cinema movement in France with films like High Tension and Martyrs, and a run of post 9/11 shockers like The Devil’s Rejects and Hostel. A lot of those films were dismissed as “torture porn” — critic David Edelstein’s catchy term of revulsion — but in hindsight, they were more sophisticated than the label implies, and now feel like a collective effort to bring horror in line with 21st-century, real-world atrocities. Miike would have a role to play in that; the same year he told the tale of Aoyama and Asami, he destroyed the entire planet in Dead or Alive, and that was just the first in a trilogy. But Audition opened up new frontiers for the genre, not merely in how graphic it could get, but how ambitious in theme and form.

“Kiri, kiri, kiri,” as Asami would say. Deeper, deeper, deeper.

Scott Tobias is a freelance film and television writer from Chicago. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Vulture, Variety and other publications.