Considered a masterpiece of J-Horror, Audition takes place in patriarchal Japan where men are dominant, yet the film turns the tables in a particularly savage way—enough to shake even the most hardcore feminist. Audition has a low-key beginning; the first few scenes feature the widower Aoyama and his 17-year-old son Shigehiko living a quiet, peaceful existence. As his son prepares to leave the nest, he encourages Aoyama to marry again.
As a director, Miike tips his hand early and he’s brilliantly efficient—-in a two minute scene at Aoyama’s small company, we learn much about the protagonist and his world. As Aoyama sits down with his video editor, the two men watch film of Japanese youth at a rave. The video editor says, “They’re pretty much the same… lonely people. Happy people wouldn’t go to that kind of concert. All Japanese are lonely”.
As Aoyama leaves the office, his secretary follows him out to the elevator:
Secretary: “I’m going to get married soon.”
Aoyama: “Really…to whom?”
Secretary: “To someone you don’t know.”
Aoyama: (he hesitates, then bows slightly) “Well, congratulations.”
Aoyama steps into the elevator, the doors close and the camera lingers on the secretary in close-up. She’s emotionally devastated. In this brief, painful scene, everything about their relationship is revealed: this woman was used and discarded by Aoyama.
Aoyama meets his friend Yoshikawa for drinks and mentions his desire to marry again. Yoshikawa, a film producer, asks Aoyama about his ideal woman, then suggests a phony audition. Yoshikawa arranges a casting call for ‘the part’ described by Aoyama. The casting call is soon advertised on the radio as “Tomorrow’s Heroine”.
The following scene—an audition of 30 Japanese women for a phony part—is a comic tour-de-force, as Yoshikawa and Aoyama meet and question the hopeful women—some serious, others woefully inept, and a few who seem genuinely crazy. Yet one stands apart from the rest: Asami, clad in white, is a beautiful and elegant young woman who glides rather than walks, gestures with a dancer’s grace, and speaks with a musical voice. Aoyama is absolutely enchanted by her.
But Yoshikawa, a man of the world and more resistant to feminine charm, warns Aoyama at the outset:
Aoyama: “What do think of Asami?”
Yoshikawa: “She makes me nervous. She makes me want to smoke a cigarette.”
As the film progresses, Yoshikawa acts as a one man Greek chorus, with his frequent warnings about the mysterious Asami. “We can’t find any of her references,” Yoshikawa tells Aoyama soon after the audition.
None of this matters. Aoyama is love-struck and pursues Asami with dogged earnestness. And now the film turns dark—for the viewer, like Yoshikawa, senses there’s something wrong with Asami: she’s lovely to look at, yet there’s a cold reserve in her knowing smile. And as the courtship progresses, Asami is always dressed in white, and one is left with a peculiar impression—that the likable Aoyama is in way-over-his-head, that he’s in love with something spectral, a ghost, maybe a succubus.
In a chilling scene, Aoyama has a dream where he’s on a dinner date with Asami. He turns around and his dead wife, Ryoko, is seated at the next table.
Aoyama: “Ryoko, there’s someone I want you to meet. This is Asami.”
Ryoko: “No, Aoyama…she is not good for you…no.”
This warning from beyond the grave goes unheeded. More is revealed about the mysterious Asami: abused as a child, she’s now quite adept with piano wire—particularly with those who ‘betray’ her. In one scene, Asami decapitates her stepfather with the grace of a murderous ballerina.
In Audition’s notorious climax, Asami sneaks into Aoyama’s home and spikes his whiskey. As Aoyama falls paralyzed to the floor, Asami emerges clad in a black latex apron and gloves. The helpless Aoyama finally glimpses Asami’s true nature: lethally beautiful and positively demonic. Asami sings sweetly to him as she tortures Aoyama with needles and dismembers him with piano wire.
For critics looking for political allegory, Audition may be interpreted in one of two ways: as deliberately misogynist or subversively feminist. Miike denies any kind of political statement in the film. Yet in the first half of Audition, women are depicted in exclusively submissive roles: Aoyama’s secretary (and rejected lover), Yoshikawa’s personal assistant and coffee gofer, Aoyama’s maid. Even Shigehiko’s girlfriend, on a visit to Aoyama’s home, offers to cook dinner.
But with the arrival of the murderous Asami, the rigid Japanese social order is turned upside-down. Whether intentional or not, this turnabout packs a peculiar wallop.
The collector’s edition includes a bonus disc with cast interviews, and remarkable insight is provided by Eihi Shiina, the actress who plays Asami. A model by profession, Shiina provides the perfect analysis of a sociopath: “Asami cannot imagine the world of her victims, that they have their own lives, complete with people who love them.”
The seduction of the intelligent Aoyama by the beautiful Asami with her musical voice and cold smile is quite frightening. Asami is hyper-feminine yet totally detached from the human condition—a lioness who loves to toy with her kill. And that makes Audition a terrifying and unforgettable film.