Audition (1999) Movie Review

I’ve been hearing filmmaker Takashi Miike’s name for a while now. The man is apparently the biggest thing to come out of Japan since the samurai, and his other movie, Ichi the Killer, is making big waves. And so I went into Audition, an earlier 1999 effort by Miike, with great expectations — and had to wait for an hour and a half until I finally saw what everyone was drooling over.

Audition concerns widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), who 7 years after his wife’s death, is still alone with his son, but not exactly grieving. At his son’s prompting, Aoyama gets back into the dating game, and turns to friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a movie producer, for help. Yoshikawa recommends that Aoyama sit in on one of his movie auditions and “choose” (from the auditioning women) the one he wants to date. Aoyama, aware of his middle-age status, reluctantly agrees.

In the audition, Aoyama is immediately captivated by 21-year old Asami (Eihi Shiina), who describes herself as shy and a “good girl.” Yoshikawa isn’t so certain, and is suspicious of Asami, but Aoyama is not going to be talked out of his love at first sight bug. After a couple of dates with the friendless Asami, Aoyama considers proposing marriage. But as Yoshikawa warned, Asami is not who she claims to be, and inside that attractive young woman is a very disturbed person with homicidal tendencies and a fondness for metal garrote wires…

To say that Japanese movies are notorious for being laboriously slow-paced, and as a result “too Japanese”, is not a slam on the Japanese people. Actually it’s a compliment to the Japanese that they are capable of not only being satisfied with watching things slowly progress to an eventual climax — even if said climax is a “minor” one at best — but also that they enjoy the experience of “getting there”. Movies, as they say, are the windows to a society; Japanese movies, by that proverb, tell us that the Japanese people like things slow. The slower, the better — or so it seems.

Takashi Miike’s Audition is a Psychological Horror/Suspense Thriller, although you wouldn’t be able to prove it from the film’s first hour. There is exactly one scene in that entire hour that adds some measure of “suspense” to the proceedings — it comes about halfway through and involves a large bundle inside a knapsack. The rest of the movie plays out as a standard “Japanese drama” — which means it moves (when it does) with as much energy as a tortoise trying to beat the hare in that infamous race. Actually, Audition can best be described in an allegory to the knapsack: it just sits there like a lump of rock, only to unexpectedly move, giving us hope that there’s something inside besides a rock like we all suspect. Audition is terribly dull in the beginning and middle, and only kicks into gear with the Third Act. The last act is the only reason to watch this movie.

While Miike and writer Daisuke Tengan, working from a novel by Ryu Murakami, does give us a couple of glimpses (or to be more precise, flashes) of terrific imageries, those pale in comparison to the overwrought boredom of the film’s beginning and middle. Only when the movie moves toward wrapping things up does the situations get dramatically better, and the suspense and “horror” comes into play.

Miike, as mentioned, shows flashes of brilliance. The man has a good eye for the camera, and even when the film refuses to breathe just a little to convince us it’s still alive, Miike’s frame composition is still impressive. Lead Ryo Ishibashi, as the lonely middle-aged widower, does a fabulous job as a decent man who just wants a companion to cure his loneliness. Aoyama’s reluctance to hold an “audition” essentially to pick a potential wife is well handled and believable. Eihi Shiina, who debuted with this film, is very pretty as the slightly off Asami, and her transformation from docile young lady to maniac with a garrote wire is terrifically effective. She is incredibly creepy, but at the same time oddly desirable.

Audition is clearly also something of a social satire. Japan is a male-dominated society, has always been, is so at this very moment, and will probably continue to be for a long time coming. The stereotypical vision of Japanese women as docile and subservient are played to great effect in the movie. Not only does Asami represent (at least outwardly) the perfect Japanese “woman” according to everyone, including Japanese men — she’s pretty, young, respectful, and is a “good girl” in every way — but she’s also grateful that this 50-ish man is showing an interest in her, as if she couldn’t find anyone else. The filmmakers seem to be smirking at the man-first, woman-maybe-later culture of modern Japan, and I appreciated Audition on that socially conscience level.

Audition is a good film when it realizes what it is — a psychological horror — and puts away the kid gloves. It is a lifeless rock when it tries to play it straight.

The Japanese like their things to progress slowly to an inevitable conclusion — Audition’s inevitable conclusion is minor at best. Then again, I’m sure the Japanese don’t mind. Or if they do, they’re probably too nice to say.

Takashi Miike (director) / Ryu Murakami (novel), Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
CAST: Ryo Ishibashi …. Shigeharu Aoyama
Eihi Shiina …. Asami Yamazaki
Tetsu Sawaki …. Shigehiko Aoyama
Jun Kunimura …. Yasuhisa Yoshikawa

Buy Audition on DVD