Expectations can be a tricky thing when it comes to the horror genre. Of all the genres – yes, even more so than comedy – horror is probably the most subjective. The gauge of what makes a person’s skin crawl is as diverse as the various films themselves. This is why one generation may consider The Exorcist to be one of the scariest films of all time while another, upon the films’ re-release in theatres years later, finds it comical. Horror often works best when it speaks to a particular fear that is inherent within a person or a group of people. As a result, it is sometime tough to wrap one’s head around the various “scariest movie ever” and “it’s so disturbing” hyperbole often bestowed on highly praised films of the genre.
I could not help but think of this when watching Takashi Miike’s Audition. While I enjoy a good horror flick, I must admit that I usually tend to shy away from films that are excessively gory for gratuitous sake. It is why it took me a few years to psych myself up to watch The Human Centipede; a viewing experience that oddly mirrored Audition for me…but more on that in a bit. After hearing local cinephiles raving about Miike’s 1999 twisted tale for years, I figured it was time to “man up” and take the plunge.
Already armed with few Miike films under my belt – I loved 13 Assassins but was lukewarm on both Sukiyaki Western Django and Ichi the Killer – I knew that Miike’s brand of filmmaking was broad to say the least. After all my first experience with the director’s work was the 2003 gangster/horror Gozu, a film that has seared images into my brain that I will never…ever…forget. Considering I was told that Audition was even more disturbing than Gozu, I envisioned watching the bulk of the film through the quivering fingers that shielded my eyes.
Funny thing is that did not happen. Similar to my experience viewing The Human Centipede, it led me to wonder if the bark surrounding this film was bigger than its actual bite?
Despite being a rather fascinating psychological exploration of gender politics, when it ultimately reveals its true nature, I felt that Audition was nothing like others had built it up to be. It was as if I had gone out specifically for greasy junk food and was instead served a well-cooked steak as a lengthy appetizer. By time the main course of junk food arrived, though tasty, I could not help but wish for more of the steak that I had devoured for the last hour and a half.
It probably did not help that I knew very little about the film going in. Outside of the “you will have nightmares after” type of rhetoric from others – for the record, I slept like a baby – the only knowledge I had was that it was about a man and a woman and it involved elements of torture. Of course Miike’s narrative is far more elaborate than that. The story focuses on a lonely middle-aged widower, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who is encouraged by his teenage son (Tetsu Sawaki) and a colleague, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), at his video production company to get back into the dating scene.
Persuaded by Yasuhisa, Shiegharu agrees to set up a fake film casting session with the sole intention of auditioning potential dates. It is through this process that he meets Asami (Eihi Shiina), a young former ballerina with a mysterious past. Though their courtship seems innocent enough a darker element is brewing just underneath the surface.
While there are some brutally graphic moments, they are far from the most notable aspects of the film. It is actually the way that Miike constructs his tale that makes Audition such a unique horror film. There are surreal aspects to the piece, the David Lynch-esque event Shigeharu endures in the latter half comes to mind, but they are contained to a small section. Miike spends a large portion of Audition methodically building the tension through mystery. He takes great pleasure in highlighting the little details.
A subtle, but effective shot of a disheveled Asami slowly forming a devilish grin when her phone rings, as if she knew Shigeharu would call, sends a cold shiver down the spine. Throughout the film Miike sprinkles little clues, a sack in the middle of Asami’s living room for example, to set the stage for the drastic change in tone to come. While it is easy to see why the shift in gears would be the most talked about aspect of the film, the reasons behind it are more engaging than the acts themselves. Miike touches on some really interesting social commentary regarding the abuse of power within the sexes in Japan. The problem is that the message becomes diluted under the weight of all the gruesome, and somewhat silly, carnage.
Though Audition is a solid psychological horror, I was somewhat underwhelmed due to the buzz surrounding the film. Even the excessive moments did not seem that gruesome in comparison to other films in the genre. Regardless, I hope to revisit the film again one day now I know what to actually expect. For all I know, I may even enjoy Audition on a more passionate level with all the ambient noise from friends finally removed from my mind.