Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the Big Deal?
Audition is a psychological horror film released in 1999 and is based on the 1997 novel of the same name by Ryu Murakami. Directed by controversial Japanese director Takashi Miike, the film follows a widower who finds love again through a bogus audition for a film but soon finds that the woman who has captured his attention is not at all what she seems. The film stars Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Jun Kunimura and Tetsu Sawaki. Produced to capitalise on the success of the film Ring released the same year, the film proved notorious for its levels of violence and the brutal final scene which would influence other horror filmmakers like Eli Roth (Hostel) and the Soska Sisters (American Mary). Released to a positive reception from critics, the film was granted an international release - becoming the first Miike film to receive a UK release - but earned less than $360'000 worldwide. However, it has gone on to become considered one of the best horror films of all time as it frequently appears on lists of the best horror films ever made and is also considered an early example of what is now known as 'torture porn'.
What's It About?
Seven years after losing his wife Ryoko to illness, middle-aged executive Shigeharu Aoyama has brought up his son Shigehiko by himself but failed to move on personally from his loss. Still mired in his grief, his film producer friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa suggests a way for Shigeharu to meet someone new. He proposes hosting an audition for a minor character in a film he's producing, someone who matches Shigeharu's personal tastes for what he's looking for in a partner. Selecting dozens of women from a number of applications, Shigeharu finds himself intrigued by former ballerina Asami Yamazaki who later attends the audition.
Despite all the other women who attend the audition, Shigeharu finds himself captivated by Asami during the audition and finds himself calling her back for dinner. Asami is apparently delighted by Shigeharu's attention although Yasuhisa is much more reticent as he is unable to follow up any of her references she provided. And after a weekend away at a beach retreat, Shigeharu is about to find out that his friend's fears are totally justified...
Trailer for Special Edition DVD
What's to Like?
First of all, it's important to say that this film is strictly for adults only. This isn't some Hollywood-style horror film full of jump scares and a strangely disfigured serial killer targeting teenagers - this is a Japanese horror film, designed to scar you and stay with you whether you want it to or not. If you've seen the original Ring then you'll find familiar themes here - the unnatural and creepy alongside the mundane and every day. Part of the film's strength is the natural charm of Ishibashi as Shigeharu who feels as though he's accidentally wandered on set from another film, probably a light-hearted rom-com. For the longest time, Audition doesn't feel like a horror film although there are only brief glimpses of something dark hidden underneath the surface.
I could detail how the film lurches from its gentle romance to a stomach-churning take on Fatal Attraction but the best way of watching this film is actually knowing as little about it as possible. Suffice to say that Shiina, who looks more than a little like the demonic Sadako from Ring, is an unsettling presence throughout the film whose softly spoken manner belies the tortured soul within. But Asami is not a one-dimensional monster but a character with more depth than your average slasher. We see her tragic past gradually revealed and it's possible to even find yourself sympathising with this woman, something that's unthinkable with the likes of Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. What's even more curious is the film's ambiguous ending, making you think about the characters and their motivations and who, ultimately, deserved their fate. For viewers not used to watching films with excessive gore, Audition might feel a little slow for some but personally, I think that the film's relative normality makes the extreme violence even more impactful. Having first seen the film years ago, I was relieved to find that the film still has immense power to it and while it isn't as extreme as some of Miike's other work (like Ichi The Killer), I reckon this could be his best film to date.
- The film didn't achieve much popularity until it found success at European film festivals like the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000 where the film had a record number of people walking out. One woman even hissed "You are sick!" at Miike as she walked out of the ensuing Q&A session which amused the director. At the Swiss premier, one woman needed medical attention after fainting.
- Among the film's fans are Quentin Tarantino who called the film "a true masterpiece if ever there was one", heavy metal musician and horror film director Rob Zombie who described this movie as the creepiest and most unsettling film he'd ever seen and filmmaker Eli Roth who claims this film directly inspired him to make Hostel where Miike even makes a cameo.
- The film has been called both feminist and misogynist by critics. Some argue that Asami's violent revenge is fitting, given Shigeharu's objectification of women in the beginning of the film and the audition process itself, as Asami becomes a twisted avenging angel. Others have noted that Asami has no moral mission and her decisions are based on her past experiences, not some feminist ideology. Interestingly, the novel's author Ryu Murakami, screenwriter Daisuke Tengan and Miike have all denied any overt feminist themes in the film.
What's Not to Like?
For the squeamish, quite a lot! But if you've made it this far then I'm guessing that you're still interested. As I say, the film may disappoint viewers who prefer more gore in their films as it's really only the last forty minutes or so that feel anything like a horror film. But this restraint is part of the reason I enjoy Asian cinema, and J-horror in particular, so much - it's more interested in what you can't see and films like this toy with your imagination and feel much less predictable than almost anything Hollywood has produced in decades. For me, horror isn't represented by how much claret is spilt on screen but how afraid you feel watching it. It sounds obvious but I fear filmmakers in the West have forgotten this and when Asami's true nature is revealed, it is genuinely disturbing. Frankly, the torture feels a little indulgent on Miike's part as it's almost unnecessary at that point but it's a horrific pay-off for patient viewers nonetheless.
I also would have liked a little more exposition as Shigeharu's life descends into a maddening pit of hopelessness. Nothing too explicit as the film does a great job of filling in some of the blanks such as the relationship he has with his married housekeeper or his son. But the film did leave me with questions and I hate it when that happens. I also wasn't a fan of the wheelchair-bound old man character who felt and looked a bit stereotypical in this kind of role. But I can't give this film a five-star rating because it's almost too efficient at what it is. It's too unsettling for its own good and when the dust settles, there is no sense of relief or daylight that sometimes comes with a film's climax. Instead, there is a gnawing sense of dread that could put you off dating for life and thanks to its shocking imagery, Audition is a film that doesn't leave your memory any time soon.
Should I Watch It?
If you have a weak stomach then the answer is definitely no, you shouldn't. For the rest of you, prepare yourself for a dark and disgusting riposte to romantic dramas and battle-of-the-sexes comedies. Films like Audition rightfully paved the way for J-horror to take over the world and while films like this aren't what you'd call an everyday experience, they can certainly eff up your day. It lulls you into a false sense of security before going for the jugular and when it does, it is brutally effective.
Great For: horror fans, lovers of extreme cinema, scaring you with the sight of a wire saw
Not So Great For: dating websites or apps, the squeamish, anyone with a fear of Japanese women with straight black hair wearing white
What Else Should I Watch?
Personally, I blame Ring. The supernatural fable about a cursed videotape killing anyone curious enough to watch it may have been weakened by some less-than-stellar Hollywood remakes starring Naomi Watts but the original is still worth a watch for anyone looking for a fantastic spook-em-up. Believe it or not, it was Ring that inspired me to become a critic in the first place when I wrote my first ever review on IMDb way back in 2004 and it has stayed with me ever since. It's also kinda put me off watching other J-horror classics like Dark Water and Ju On: The Grudge because there is only so much space in my brain for genuinely traumatising horror films.
Speaking of which, Takashi Miike has become one of Japan's more prolific directors working today with a number of movies released every year since his debut in 1991. Although he has produced films in a wide variety of styles and genres, he is most associated with yakuza films and scenes of extreme violence or sexual perversion. His censorship-baiting resume include some truly brutal films like the aforementioned Ichi The Killer, Shinjuku Triad Society and his Dead Or Alive series. If you can handle cartoony levels of violence and blood in your movies then it's worth checking out some of his more recent efforts like Blade Of The Immortal based on the manga series of the same name or the historical epic 13 Assassins, a lavish remake of Eiichi Kudo's classic samurai film from 1963.
Rie, the housekeeper
Release Date (UK)
16th March, 2001
Drama, Horror, Mystery
© 2021 Benjamin Cox