Sunday 11 September 2011

Audition (1999)


We’ve dealt with Takashi Miike before. The last time, I looked at his 2001 Yakuza flick Agitator, a fine crime thriller concerned with the bonds of brotherhood and loyalty. However, two years before this, Miike released a film that got him an incredible amount of notoriety. When it was shown at Rotterdam, there were a record number of people who walked out, including a female audience member who called him “evil”; and when shown at the Swiss premier and at the Irish Film Institute, some audience members passed out, with some reports of people being taken to hospital. An adaptation of the novel by Ryu Murakami, the film was Audition.

Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a lonely Japanese widower, whose son believes it’s time for his father to find someone new. When Aoyama tells his friend and fellow producer, they come up with the idea of holding auditions for a non-existent film, whereby Aoyama can select a potential bride from the girls that respond. He becomes fascinated by one particular young woman, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Things start out well enough, but gradually devolve into a hideous nightmare.

Considering that the original novel of Audition was written by Ryu Murakami, and the script written by Daisuke Tengan, there is the feeling of two separate influences guiding the film. The first is, of course, Miike, running with his occasional predilection for the show of extreme cinema. The other is one that comes through Miike by proxy, the influence of another well-known Japanese director, Shôhei Imamura, under whom Miike served as apprentice. One of the preoccupations that Imamura held in his work was to provide a more counter-culture perspective of Japan. He presented a view that punctured the traditional image that many had (and still kind of have) of Japan, the one of tea ceremonies and kimonos other such time-honoured ideals. A great part of this was Imamura’s disgust with the idea of the traditional Japanese woman, subservient and meek, present only to support and attend to the man. Imamura’s work was littered with strong and resilient female characters, shown in films like Nippon Sengoshi - Madamu onboro no Seikatsu and The Insect Woman. Considering Imamura’s desire to present women who represented a different picture of Japanese femininity, and his direct influence on Miike as a filmmaker, it’s perhaps easy to see part of the inspiration here.

Despite the woman who denounced Miike as evil when she walked out of the screening in Rotterdam, and Miike’s own insistence that there was no intentional attempt made at social critique, there have been many that have read Audition as something of a feminist text, with Asami representing a counter to the traditional image of a Japanese woman. Both Aoyama and his friend Yoshikawa’s ideas of the ideal woman are based on somewhat antiquated notions of subservience and presentation. Before they first discuss the idea of holding an audition, they sit in a bar talking about women, which is sparked by their dislike of the group of young women sitting at one of the tables. The women are loud, laughing, making a spectacle of themselves in the place, even though it’s almost deserted. The two men call them stupid, think they are unbecoming because of their lack of demure restraint. From here, the conversation eventually winds its way towards what kind of woman Aoyama would like to find. He says he wants a woman of accomplishment, but who hasn’t had any real success. He’d like someone who can sing or play an instrument, someone who can entertain him. Youth is not necessarily a requirement, nor even good looks, but rather just the ability to hold a supporting role in his life. Aoyama isn’t really a reprehensible person, but these views are pretty loathsome. Hell, even the camera doesn’t want to get too close to him when he talks like, often sitting in another room entirely. Primarily this is to highlight his loneliness, but part of it is about keep a distance from this kind of disquieting sentiment.

When the auditions actually take place, it’s presented as a fun montage, actually the kind that we’d normally see taking place in a standard Hollywood romantic comedy where the main character tries on a variety of dresses to see what she’ll wear on her big date. And it is rather funny, with thirty women having been pre-selected for an interview, running the gamut from awkward frump to cheerleader in full uniform. It’s made more bizarre by Yoshikawa’s rather inappropriate questions (“Would you work in the sex industry?”, “What kind of men do you hate?”, “Could you just… walk around a little?”). And we are right there with them, watching this amusing montage of women dancing, walking, stripping for the two men. However, Aoyama hasn’t said a word the whole time. He’s waiting on a particular girl, whose application essay, about training to become a ballerina before injury destroyed her chances, caught his eye for its maturity - Number 28: Asami Yamazaki. When she enters, dressed in white, quiet, demure, polite, it’s clear Aoyama has already fallen. For the first time, he speaks. He speaks so much about how much he liked her essay that she says almost nothing. The tables seem to have turned somewhat. In fact, the camera now sits behind Asami, with Aoyama now up for critique. Now, he’s being auditioned.

The film progresses with Aoyama sticking to the plan, contacting Asami later to ask her out, which she gladly accepts. Indeed, things go so well that the first half hour of the film has the distinct flavour of the romantic drama about it, any hints of any form of psychosis far from anyone’s mind… but then things start to shift, very subtly at first, but with a gradually building sense of relentlessness. Yoshikawa doesn’t really trust Asami, though he can offer nothing by of concrete reason, there’s just something not right about her. Of course, Aoyama is in love, so he pays little attention. He’s currently unaware of the brief glimpses we get of Asami in her home, patiently kneeling, staring at the phone, waiting for it to ring. As the relationship between Asami and Aoyama grows, the small glances at something very dark become more regular, more pronounced, more unnerving. Aoyama has his share of emotional baggage, with the feeling that he never really got over the death of his wife, which is perfectly understandable. However, not only does Asami have some serious emotional baggage, with a history of abuse at the hands of her aunt and father, but she’s got some literal baggage to go with it, and the first time you notice it is a chilling moment.

When Asami disappears in the middle of the night, Aoyama begins a difficult journey to track her down. In doing so, he gets into a heated argument with Yoshikawa; he hears stories of disappearances and brutal murders; and he meets a monster of a human being in the form of a crippled old man who abused Asami as a child. When he returns home after a day of searching, he hears the message that his son is spending the night with a friend. Aoyama pours himself a drink and tries to relax… but then his vision blurs, his body twitches and goes awkward, and he falls to the ground and can’t move. From the floor, he sees into the other room, where Asami is had donned a black apron and long gloves and is reaching for a bag. From here on, the film goes from dark and unsettling to downright nightmarish and horrifying. Asami has completed her transition from the quiet and modest woman to unmitigated psychopath.

The film itself is incredibly well made. I’ve often said that one of the most difficult things a director can attempt is a gradual tonal shift over the course of a film, trying to maintain the initial mood of the piece and slowly changing into something completely different without any early reveals or grinding gear changes. As such, Miike does a spectacular job of controlling this picture, dropping only vague hints about the horror to come, but still managing to make things light enough that you can forget them if he wants. In fact, it speaks to the power of the film that the actual torture scene is, surprisingly, not particularly graphic. Don’t get me wrong, you do see something, but for the most part, it’s presented in such a way that implication takes most of the weight. However, the fact that the film is well made can be only part of the equation. Indeed, many would, rather understandably, refuse to acknowledge such skill if the film proffered an ideal that they found disagreeable. To this, we have to consider what this film is really saying, if anything?

As I’ve mentioned, Miike has stated that he was not trying to make any statements about society or Japanese culture. However, there is invariably something that comes through from any film, whether or not there was any kind of intended subtext. Obviously, the biggest question is in regards to what the film is saying about women? Some claim it as a feminist text, but to what end? Is the idea that Asami, as a victim of abuse, is striking back at her male aggressors? Is she some kind of personification of a Japanese female identity, tired of being subjugated and ignored, taking up arms against the old ways? I can certainly see the point behind this idea. Asami is initially presented as, at least in Aoyama’s view, the ideal woman. She’s quiet and polite, dressed plainly in white and doesn’t clamour for attention. However, with her gradual shift in mental state, she reveals that beneath that reserved exterior, there can exist something unbelievably dangerous and frightening.

However, from this, we can sort of see a counterpoint to this. Is the film more anti-feminist than anything? The film effectively presents two kinds of females: the attractive and strong, but utterly psychotic figure (Asami); and the plain, subservient and very safe figure (Rie, and Aoyama’s secretary). The only other female to figure into Aoyama’s life strongly is his dead wife, who seems to be only one free of either definition. Is it being asserted that only the attractive can afford to be strong-willed, even to the point of lunacy? Are the less attractive amongst the female gender expected to be dutiful and submissive because that’s the only way they’ll find a man?

Then again, perhaps treating it as a feminist text is incorrect, at least in the above such ways. Maybe the focus should be placed on Aoyama, and the film seen as a punishment laid out onto him for his sins, like betraying his wife’s memory and holding such appalling views on women. After all, Aoyama isn’t simply some sort of sexist, but a legitimate user of women. He makes some mention of being lonely, being without female companionship, but he doesn’t deny himself sexual gratification. In his mental guilt trip just before Asami begins her gruesome attack, we hear that he had sex with his secretary once, but that was it. She expected it to go somewhere, and still kind of does, but he regards her with all the intimacy and warmth as anyone else who works for him. Clearly, this causes her some pain, but he doesn’t even notice it. In this way, Asami is not any kind of model for femininity, rather just an agent of vengeance that doles out retribution on those deemed bad. And even then, does Aoyama, for all his faults, really deserve this?

Of course, if we are to believe Miike in his claims that there is no such social commentary implied, then what are we left with? If it exists purely as something to horrify and shock, has it gone too far? Surely people passing out at screenings and needing trips to the hospital is something to consider. Is it really worth the effort if there’s nothing behind it? Could it just have existed as a study of a lonely man and a damaged young woman, without the trip down viscera lane?

Overall, I do like Audition, though I think it’s impossible to say you enjoy it. The actual manner of production and the expertise in filmmaking is undeniably effective, creating something with a genuinely bold and disturbing punch. Where things get murky is when you try to pin down any kind of meaning behind it all. I find Miike’s assertion that there is no social commentary intended a little distasteful, primarily because I don’t like the idea that all of what I just saw would, ultimately, be for nought. If I’m going to have an image of a guy getting needles put under his eyes entering my head, I would at least like for there to be a point to it… no pun intended. Given that I’m less okay with such a potentially harrowingly hollow experience, I’m then forced to try and identify what I think the point it was.

Whilst the notion that pretty women can get away with more than non-pretty women has existed before this film, and could be applied quite easily, I don’t think that’s what the film is really saying. Females in the film are presented in a somewhat stereotypical fashion, but then so are the men, with almost all of them resting somewhere on the Abusive Bastard-o-Meter, either through callousness or twisted pleasure. So, I don’t think I can align myself with the anti-feminist camp.

As for the feminist notion of a previously corrupted image of womanhood being turned on its abuser, I can see this as more convincing. Asami could have been a perfectly normal, and attractive, woman were it not for the hideous abuse she suffered at the hands of men. However, she does mention that she was also abused as a child by females, which rather short-circuits this notion, too. And whilst I do think that Aoyama’s views on women were repugnant, and caused him to unknowingly cause some hurt to the women in his life, he was never malicious in his intent, really being more a product of an outmoded manner of thinking. Therefore, I can’t believe that this was a justified action of vengeance against a mean-spirited male, because he wasn't… I just don’t know where I stand on it.

But then, maybe that’s really it. Perhaps Miike intentionally made something with no easily extracted answers, just to see what people would come up with. For every interpretation that could be drawn or considered, the film holds something that could counter it or overturn it, even if only in a small way. And then, just to compound the effect, he then tells us that there is no other meaning, there’s nothing intended beyond the cheap thrill of a disturbing horror film. It may sound weird, but we all know that if you tell people that there are no answers buried in a box under that tree over there, you’ll only get more people showing up with shovels. Maybe the real point is that Takashi Miike wants us to agonise over what it all means, trying to understand our position better, and then he can just sit back and watch the chaos ensue…

… god damn it, Miike.

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