10+ Years Later: Beyond AUDITION's Infamy

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10+ Years Later: Beyond AUDITION's Infamy

Audition (Takashi Miike, 1999) is a film whose memory has been all but condensed into a single image: a young Asian woman, soft-featured but wearing an unmistakably sinister side-long glance, holding up a syringe. This image was used for the film's promotional materials—posters, DVDs—and accompanied nearly every review and article written about the movie. Like the eyeball being prepped for slicing has for Un Chien Andalou, the image's ubiquity and the implications of the infamous scene have overshadowed the film itself. I gave real thought to using a different still for this article, but ultimately nothing else felt right. And would anyone even recognize it from another shot? For this edition of 10+ Years Later, I wanted to see if I could separate the film from that image, and the reputation of its final scene.

I came to Audition sometime around 2004 or 2005. It was the heyday of a genre newly dubbed 'Asian Extreme,' though the type of films that fit under its label has been around since the late 70's. Really, the early 2000's was merely when the genre began to be noticed in the western world. Asian Extreme films were, to put it simply, films that displayed excessive violence, horror, or were just aggressively bizarre. A large number of these movies were presented to us by Tartan's DVD label (which also helped coin the name itself) “Tartan Asia Extreme.”

Of the dozens of films that emerged around this time, Audition was one of the more artful offerings. Watching it again, Miike's film has more in common with Mulholland Drive (which it predated by two years), than the grindhouse-inspired fare with which it was often grouped. Audition was notorious for having shocked its unassuming audience with nauseating violence, and that shock was earned by its slow, deliberate build-up. As Miike intended, I fell under the film's spell: lulled into that false sense of security and giddily surprised the second it began to spoil as the mold crept in. I watched, re-watched it, and told everyone I knew they had to see it.

It was shortly after the Asian Extreme boom that we ushered in the era of 'torture porn.' Looking back on Audition post-Saw, Hostel, Martyrs, etc, Asami's surprise home visit inevitably packs less of a visceral punch. Within Miike's own body of work (at the time of writing, IMDB ascribes to him 100 directing credits), it actually stands out as an atypical show of restraint. But even if the sight of a freshly severed foot being unceremoniously tossed aside doesn't move you, the night is dark and full of other fucked-up terrors.

Audition's most disturbing moments are the revelations (if we can trust them to be such) concerning Asami's past, and her present private life. This sequence begins when Aoyama falls to the floor, drugged by Asami, and thus is seemingly his own fever dream. Indeed, he relives his dinner date with Asami, but the conversations are different, and his dead wife is in attendance, along with his son's new girlfriend. Obviously, this indicates that we cannot trust that these are his memories. Some of the things he experiences are moments that he couldn't have possibly been privy to, that seem to be coming from Asami's own subconscious.

Through Aoyama's flashbacks/hallucinations, we continue to see flickers of Asami's abuse-plagued childhood, featuring cameos from her demented piano-playing uncle whom Aoyama encountered while seeking her out. We also see Asami in her apartment—or rather, we see Aoyama watching Asami in her apartment. Do we see the mutilated man from the record label (a.k.a. “sack guy”) because Miike is simply revealing his fate for the audience's benefit? Or are we, instead, seeing Aoyama's own conclusions and assumptions? Did his previously gleaned knowledge about the extra tongue and fingers in the bar combine with his fears and uncertainties, creating a nightmare creature that represented his festering anxieties about Asami, and women in general?

I think it's probably a little of both. The final third of the movie is a kind of mind-meld between the two lead characters; the careless, selfish masculine and the deranged feminine. Aoyama mistakenly characterized Asami as an angelic figure placed in his path to provide nurturing companionship, taking the place of his late wife. Asami, given her own history, erroneously characterized Aoyama as another abusive, predatory male. The film cannot successfully function as a feminist revenge narrative because Aoyama's crime doesn't fit his punishment. His fake audition was deceitful, certainly, but it's clear that Asami had her plan in place long before she could have learned this. Ultimately, the torture scene emerges as a tragic outcome, unsettling in its inevitability. It doesn't end well for either of our lovers; instead it lays there, as do the bodies of Asami and Aoyama, in a grim and stubborn draw.

10+ years ago, I saw the torture scene as a woman's bloody, uncensored vengeance upon a man—standing in for men in the broadest sense—who'd had the power to toy with her, and shape her future. Now, Audition no longer feels like a war-of-the-sexes with one victor. Instead, it's a sad commentary on a quagmire that seems more timely than ever, and leaves both sides debilitated. Maybe that's not as sexy and doesn't carry the same cultural cachet, but for me the film has finally moved beyond its iconic image. Deeper, deeper, deeper.

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1999auditioneihi shiinajapaneseodishonryo ishibashiryu murakamitakashi miike

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ManateeAdvocateFebruary 9, 2017 11:52 AM

Great op-ed. I'm a huge Miike fan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

soupcrusherFebruary 9, 2017 1:12 PM

"And would anyone even recognize it from another shot?"

I'd go with the shot of the phone with the "body" bag behind it. Can't beat the still up top though.

ZetobeltFebruary 9, 2017 1:27 PM

Kiri-kiri-kiri...

YojimboFebruary 9, 2017 3:12 PM

Noooooooooooooooooooo!!
That line is chilling.
To the western ear that always sounded like Kitty, kitty, kitty.
Either way now if I hear a woman say Kitty kitty or kiri kiri it gives me the chills.

One-EyeFebruary 9, 2017 8:37 PM

I may be in the minority but I always loved BOX, Miike's segment of THREE: EXTREMES.

I always felt it was almost a companion piece to AUDITION in that it has that immaculately controlled stillness and deals with child abuse issues. I much preferred it to that rambling mess that Chan-wook Park made.

Teresa NiemanFebruary 9, 2017 10:39 PM

Glad you enjoyed it! Can you recommend any good recent Miike? Last one I saw was his Harakiri remake.

Gopal NatarajanFebruary 9, 2017 11:09 PM

Of the dozen or so Miike films I've seen, this is the only one I've liked.

Teresa NiemanFebruary 9, 2017 11:15 PM

True, but you'd have probably needed to see the movie before recognizing that shot, whereas I don't think that's true of the needle one.

ManateeAdvocateFebruary 10, 2017 7:09 AM

Recent Miike? I'll assume you've seen his version of 13 Assassins. Lesson of Evil was good. A true favorite of mine happens to be Kikoku (Yakuza Demon). Check it out if you haven't already. Arrow is releasing some of his early films on blu here recently. His Black Society Trilogy is out now and the Dead or Alive Trilogy is releasing soon. Happy viewing.

ManateeAdvocateFebruary 10, 2017 7:12 AM

Agreed. Dumplings is my favorite of the three though.

Ard VijnFebruary 10, 2017 7:49 AM

"Over Your Dead Body" is very accomplished as well, a gorgeous-looking film with Miike restraining himself to making the story's subtext scarier than the ghost.

Ard VijnFebruary 10, 2017 7:50 AM

Seconded, awesome article Teresa!

ZetobeltFebruary 10, 2017 1:09 PM

My 3 recomendations:
1) As the Gods will
2) Lesson of the Evil
3) Shield of Straw

A Movie A Day KeepsFebruary 11, 2017 7:59 PM

While I agree that his punishment does not fit his crime, the way women are treated in this film, and in Japanese culture in general, is pretty horrible. Other than wasting the time of 100+ women during a fake audition, you just have to remember the bar scene where the guys are going on about how awful modern women are, being loud, going out, enjoying themselves. On top of that, it not only seems perfectly fine to them for a 50 year old guy to be able to find a 20something year old girl, she should be smart, cultured, and have talents and things to keep her busy so she is not too demanding. Other than his money and some security, he is not exactly swimming in amazing qualities.

I saw Audition a bunch of times early on, and when it comes to heightened stress levels in a theater, this film is one of the top films to watch people squirm in heir seats, hide their eyes, or even walk out. Almost every early screening I saw had a walk out, one guy limped out, though I have no clue if he had a limp walking in or if it was just him identifying strongly with the lead. While I do understand that the image you used, plus the one with the wire, are iconic, I feel that they are unfortunately spoilers for people who have not yet heard what this film is about.

The scene that changes the energy in the theater is when the bag rolls over. I remember the first time I saw that, and everyone was on edge after that, just waiting for the hammer to fall. Miike himself has admitted that he wanted the first hour to almost bore you, setting you up for the horror that is to come. It takes a brave filmmaker to intentionally bore an audience. I always had a fantasy of an American remake with Tom Hanks and Katie Holmes, that would be advertised as a romantic comedy, fooling viewers who show up the first week to see it. No studio, and only a few actors, would have that kind of testicular fortitude to pull off a stunt like that, but in my fantasy world that is a reality.

While I would agree that Audition is a bit quieter than some of his more well known (in this country) fare, his output is actually very varied, for those who want to spend a fair amount of time seeing any of his work. The first film I saw of his was Visitor Q, and what it did to me turned me into a life long fan. I have now seen over 30 of his movies in theaters, more than most Americans, and probably more than most Japanese as well. While this and Ichi The Killer are among my faves, Happiness Of The Katakuris is a delightful film about a family trying to run a bed and breakfast (plus it's a musical!) and Shangri-La is a great little "let's stick it to the man" caper film that is sweet and thoroughly enjoyable. He makes kids films, violent films, sci fi films, and everything in between. His reputation may be with violence, but much of his output is far from that realm.

I always felt that the revelations in this film were Aoyama's realizations of "the truth", and while it is never explained how he knows what went on, in my head I left it to the artistic vision of the director to explains something that is most likely explained easily in the book, but not as easily or as artistically in the film.

At the time of release this film was ground breaking, extraordinary, and changed cinema for many moviegoers. While it does hold up (I am seeing it in a theater for Valentine's Day this year, with my girlfriend), as a culture we are not as shocked by the violence it portrays, and I am expecting no walk outs this viewing, I will report back if this still shocks in the theater.

Ard VijnFebruary 12, 2017 8:13 AM

You say a great many great things here, and indeed the scene with the phone ringing, the bag turning over, and the girl smiling are a highlight of horror. The audience I saw it with (back in... oh my, 2000...) gasped and never went completely quiet for the remainder of the film, a continuous concerned murmuring in the background...

Ard VijnFebruary 12, 2017 8:13 AM

And mine is CUT. What a great anthology!

A Movie A Day KeepsFebruary 19, 2017 5:11 AM

Thank you for your kind comment. I did get to see this on Valentine's Day with my girlfriend, in a theater with about 100 other people. Many of them had never seen it before, so I find it odd that they would choose seeing that for Valentine's Day, but maybe they had a fair idea of what it was about. The girl in the couple to the right of me, who did not even know anything about the film, did not seem too disturbed. Meanwhile the guy next to me was having a REALLY hard time during the final 20 minutes or so.

It's obvious that some people have seen so much torture type movies due to the Saw series, Hostel, and other movies, so Audition does not pack the punch that is used to. That being said, Saw and Hostel are straight up horror films, this is far from a typical horror film. Since this film came out I have had the ongoing fantasy of it having an American remake with Hollywood stars like Tom Hanks and Katie Holmes in the leads, and a movie company with HUGE balls to release it as a romantic comedy under a different title, something like Casting Call. NO reviews beforehand, no screenings, just a rom com marketing plan and trailers and then BAM, release it to a crowd that will mostly walk out. By the second week the lines will be out the door, with a totally different crowd seeing it. Of course, no movie company has those kind of balls, and that kind of remake will never happen. But it would be beautiful!

By the time the movie ended, some were disturbed, some were upset, some were bored and some hated it. There were no walk outs, of which I had witnessed at more than a few screenings back in 2000 and 2001, and no one seemed violently ill. Alas, as an audience we are getting harder to shock, harder to please, and harder to surprise. But watching the film again I was impressed with the construction of it, the beauty of it, the care it is given by its director, Takashi Miike. I remember thinking when I first saw it how striking the sets were, you always knew where you were in the movie, from the different restaurants, to her apartment, his place, his work, the audition room, etc etc. It is especially noticeable in the hotel room they rent when they go away, with the blue lighting and the interesting bed frame. At first I chalked this up to Miike having a good eye, but this time I realized the point of it. During his "dream", or revelation of what is going on, when you are transported back to that room, when he wakes up and looks for his feet, you know EXACTLY where he is. Same with any other part of that segment of the movie. You always know exactly where you are, and what version of reality this is. It may be a bit jarring or confusing for a moment, but you readjust quickly if you are at all invested in the film.

All in all, like many of my favorite films, a rewatching every couple years seems to make this one grow in stature, not shrink.

Teresa NiemanFebruary 25, 2017 1:02 AM

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. What you say about the treatment of women in the movie and in society is not untrue, though I still don't think Asami works as a feminist hero. That doesn't mean this isn't a commentary on the sad state of gender dynamics in late-90's Japan. I wonder how much has changed?

And kudos on an amazing choice of Valentine's Day date film.

A Movie A Day KeepsMarch 1, 2017 4:54 AM

I agree that Asami does not work as a feminist hero in this movie, though Valerie Solanis might disagree. Japan has been behind in gender dynamics for a long while, as well as much of Asia, though I would guess India is near the bottom as well as many Muslim nations. But I feel with the internet the world is catching up. We are far from a world where things are on a level playing field.

I can think of many worse Valentine's Day movies to see!