It could be argued that Audition is a film that does not require any introduction, although such a statement refers to the undeniably intense climax of Takashi Miike’s thriller rather than the meticulous build-up that has preceded it. Arriving when Japanese cinema was internationally associated with extremity – but while such films still evidenced a certain level of creativity – Audition was at least partially responsible for the ‘torture porn’ cycle of the past decade, inspiring Eli Roth to not only make Hostel (2005) but to cast Miike in a cameo role as a rather sick businessman. When screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2000, Audition had a large number of walkouts and one female viewer verbally attacking the attendant Miike, shouting ‘You’re Evil!’ at the director. This reviewer witnessed the power of the extended climax when seeing Audition during its UK theatrical release in 2001: members of the art-house audience leapt from their seats, unable to handle the torture scene, although some were glancing back at the screen on their way through the exit door to see how the story was resolved. Such is the strength of the film’s central mystery. Indeed, Miike treads a fine line throughout, successfully positioning Audition between Hitchcockian thriller and shock horror; it’s a balance that was indicated by the marketing campaign, a striking image of perfectly poised lead actress Eihi Shina that would be a most alluring example of Asian exotica if she were not wearing black rubber gloves and holding a worryingly large syringe.
Audition begins with middle-aged Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) losing his wife to illness and being left to raise his son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki). Seven years pass and Shigeharu decides it is time to start dating with a view to a second marriage, but is unsure of how to play the single’s game. Drinking with his film producer friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), the lonely Shigeharu states that his dream woman is, ‘Not too young, possibly she has a job and some skills; for example, playing the piano or Japanese dance.’ Yasuhira suggests conducting an audition by combining the casting process for his latest project with his friend’s search for a new partner, allowing Shigeharu to sit-in as he interviews actresses and amateur hopefuls for a new drama. Candidates are asked such questions as, ‘Are you interested in drugs?’ and ‘Have you ever had sex with someone you didn’t like?’, until Shigeharu takes a fancy to Asami Yamazaki (Shiina) who says that she was once a ballerina, but had to give up dancing following an injury. Shigeharu is so romantically captivated by Asami that he is willing to overlook the concern that much of her background cannot be corroborated, but scenes of Asami sitting in her unfurnished home waiting for the phone to ring with a sack in the corner suggest that he should not be so trusting. As the suspicious Yasuhisa warns him: ‘She’s beautiful, classy, obedient. And she fell right into our trap. Isn’t it too good to be true?’
Working from a novel by Ryû Murakami, the usually hyperactive Miike is in restrained mode for much of Audition, establishing Shigeharu’s loneliness through his interactions with his co-worker, friend, son and house-keeper. The director methodically details Shigeharu’s shift from love-struck widower to amateur detective when Asami disappears after one night together in a seaside hotel and the naïve suitor relies on her resume to trace her history. This leads to some atmospheric locations: a dance studio where Asami studied under a perverted teacher (Renji Ishibashi) and the entrance to a closed underground bar called ‘The Stone Fish’ where a building resident recounts a grisly murder that was committed a year earlier. Once the stage is set for torture – Asami sneaks into Shigeharu’s home and drugs his liquor – the audience is already teetering on the edge. Reactions such as the aforementioned walkouts are the result of sheer technique rather than shock factor: it is the sound of sadism that unnerves as relatively little is actually shown. The torture is also intercut with a dinner date flashback before veering off into an alternative reality where Shigeharu and Asami wake up in the hotel room and she accepts his marriage proposal. It’s more elliptical than the torture-orientated horror films that followed, predicting the recurring nightmare of Box, the unsettling segment that Miike later contributed to the pan-Asian horror anthology Three Extremes (2004). The final reel may have won Audition initial notoriety, but it’s Miike’s impeccable craftsmanship that has established it as a classic thriller.