When I first became aware of the movie Audition, all that I heard about it was how seminally fucked-up it was. Which is saying something, given director Takashi Miike’s absurdly enormous back catalogue – but this movie, made at the turn of the new millenium, ushered in a new era for just how far horror could go. New-wave extremism was starting to take shape all over the world, and would soon develop into the gorenography genre that dominated much of the early noughties – but, of all those ultra-violent cinematic endeavours, Audition might just be the best.
The premise is simple, and you’ve probably heard it already: a middle-aged widower Shiguhara (Ryo Ishibashi) is encouraged to start dating again by his teenage son and his friends. Instead of going about it through a regular route, he decides to hold fake auditions for an imaginary acting gig to pick out the woman of his dreams. There, he finds Asami (Eiha Shiina), a beautiful, mysterious young woman who turns out to have a damn good reason for being so mysterious.
What I love about Audition (both the book and the film – by the way, read Ryu Murukami, he’s fucking incredible) is the complexity of the way it approaches the objectification of women. Asami is a brilliant character, precisely because, for much of the film, she isn’t much of a character at all – she is a collection of projections that Shiguhara places on to her. Miike, behind the camera, treats Asami with a neutral practicality – we see her body, we see her nudity, but it is up to us as the audience to turn her into what we want to see from her. A sex object? A perfect wife? An innocent naif? Maybe, but if we see it, that’s on us, not on her.
Her complete neutrality is such a carefully-cultivated thing that, when it’s studded through with these moments of clear and obvious threat which foreshadow her eventual uber-violent third act, it seems obvious to us. The horror is not if something bad is coming, it’s when the hell Shiguhara is going to figure out that there is something terribly, terribly wrong with the person he has attached himself to.
It’s a frustrating watch, in some senses, but only because it’s so familiar – haven’t we all overlooked a red flag or ten when we’re bewitched by someone new? But it’s frustrating just as much for Asami as it is for us as a viewer – she wants to be seen, to be heard, to be understood as a whole person, but is endlessly reduced to what she can give to this man. I’m not saying Asami is sympathetic, exactly, but the film gives us space to understand why Shiguhara’s treatment of her triggers the explosive finale that it does.
Audition is far more than just that exceptionally hideous climax – though it still stands up today, effects and all, as one of the most effective and toe-curling pieces of horror ever made. Audition is a commentary on objectification, and exactly how people can conceal themselves when we give them space to hide. It’s a very human horror, despite how out-there it is – and probably the standout in Miike’s enormous oeuvre. Which is really saying something.
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By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Metacritic)