Men are stupid. We grab hold of a romantic notion and won't let go. We become instantly enraptured by someone's face, body, voice or written words and move forward in rabid pursuit, ignoring evidence that the other person is already involved in a relationship, wants nothing to do with us -- or is a total psycho. Audition helped make Takashi Miike known to a wider international audience in 2000, though he'd been making films for television and the direct to video market in Japan since 1991. His prolific output, and especially his sometimes sensationalist subject matter, influenced a raft of younger filmmakers, including Eli Roth, who gave him a cameo in Hostel. But don't blame torture porn on Miike.
Though I missed Audition when it played in theaters, I picked up the unrated director's cut as soon it became available on DVD. A recent viewing reaffirmed its capacity to shock. Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) sits in a hospital room and helplessly watches his beloved wife die. Seven years pass and he is nothing but a hollow shell of a middle-aged man, lonely to his core, rotely performing his duties at a video production company. Even his teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) can see that he "looks old" and encourages him to remarry. While having drinks with his producer friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), he listens to Yoshikawa bemoan the sad state of the film industry and expresses his own desire to find a nice girl to marry. With the mind of a producer, always seeking to solve problems, Yoshikawa quickly decides that they should hold an audition.
Aoyama can select a potential mate from the applicants and Yoshikawa will cast a new actress he can promote. Aoyama wonders why a girl he likes wouldn't be qualified to win the main part. Good actresses are always unhappy, Yoshikawa tells him dispassionately. "Happy people don't act well." Aoyama uneasily agrees with the scheme and sorts through dozens of applicants who respond to a radio advertisement for "Tomorrow's Heroine." One catches his eye; Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is attractive and ballet trained, artistic training being one of his requirements. In her application she compares dealing with a hip injury to accepting death because it forced her to give up her dreams of a dance career. Naturally that resonates with Aoyama.
Scored to breezy cafe music, the audition montage presents a dizzying array of potential actress/mates. Yoshikawa asks the questions as Aoyama sits next to him, wondering what he got himself into. In contrast, Yoshikawa is clearly in his element, throwing in vaguely personal questions for his friend, but also honestly evaluating talent in rapid-fire fashion. When Asami finally appears, 28th of the 30 candidates, Aoyama straightens up. We watch his expression as Asami quietly and shyly answers Yoshikawa's questions, and we know he's a goner. He even breaks protocol and compliments Asami: "I think you live your life in a very thoughtful way."
Worried that his friend has plunged into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim, Yoshikawa expresses his reservations and even does some checking on Asami's application. He finds that a music company executive she claimed to work with had disappeared without a trace a year before. But Aoyama is no longer listening and ignores the warning flags raised by Yoshikawa. He's a romantic; the potential new, ideal love of his life has walked into the room and he's not letting her go. Shortly thereafter, Audition descends into disquieting, foreboding, nightmare territory, where nerve endings you never knew existed start to chew away your intestines.
The recent so-called (and apparently short-lived) 'torture porn' mini-movement appears to be more concerned with gamesmanship, creating ever more outlandishly intricate schemes to inflict pain on unsuspecting and undeserving victims for 'fun.' In doing so, the filmmakers have appropriated some of Miike's more superficially extreme methods, but dispensed with the more troubling undercurrents that give his most fully-realized films such ferocious bite.
Audition is filled with graphic violence and disturbing imagery, so it's definitely not for everyone. Yet Miike is less interested in making you sick to your stomach than in examining how pain affects your mind and emotions. While it might be easy to ridicule the middle-aged Aoyama for blindly falling in love with a much younger woman who's none too forthcoming about her past, it's nearly impossible not to empathize with his aching loneliness. He hasn't shirked his family responsibilities, but he's distanced himself from his emotions. And once we learn Asami's secrets, it's hard not to feel pity for her, though her actions make it clear that all but one of her emotions have been boiled away by abuse, hardship and neglect.
Despite working with what must have been a very small budget, Miike displays consummate skill as a director. He favors medium shots and generally static compositions throughout, saving close-ups and long shots for emphasis. Without calling attention to the telling, the story features numerous small, revealing touches: Aoyama turns a photograph of his wife away when he's reviewing the audition applicants, but doesn't put it away or even place it face down; teenage Shigehiko's new girlfriend is attractive, self-effacing, polite, submissive and wholesome -- everything that his father is looking for in a mate; even sitting down, Asami stands out by wearing ethereal white clothing in a sea of dark colors. Miike makes good use of sound, from street traffic to dissonant strings. The performances are uniformly first-rate, especially Ryo Ishibashi as the old-fashioned, ill-fated Aoyoma.
Some fans clamored for Miike to continue topping himself in the "extreme cinema" sweepstakes, and subsequent films such as Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer have lived up to, or even exceeded, those outrageous expectations, displaying a perverse sense of humor to boot. But as more of his filmography has been made available on DVD -- he's made dozens and dozens of films -- it's become apparent that Miike cannot be pinned down to any one genre. His recent projects include a children's adventure fantasy (The Great Yokai War) and a stylish, theatrical prison drama (Big Bang Love, Juvenile A); upcoming is Sukiyaki Western Django, a spaghetti western featuring Quentin Tarantino and set in 12th-Century Japan.