Violence, Sex, and Body Parts: An In-Depth Review of Takashi Miike's 'Audition'
This is an in-depth review of Takashi Miike’s Audition. If you’ve seen the film, this might give you a different perspective of what you think you saw. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. It’s really a great movie. If you don’t think it’s worth your time, give this theoretical review a chance to change your mind. At the very least, you’ll understand why some people are so passionate about the work of Takashi Miike. Beware, spoilers ahead.
Miike Likes to Push Limits
There are many films that tackle sex and violence, but most never get to the status of prolific director Takashi Miike. Usually, he hits his viewers over the head with sexual taboo as in Visitor Q (2001) or so violent that blood and gore is just another thing to see, like in Izo (2004). This isn’t the case in 1999’s Audition where instead, Takashi Miike sneaks violence, sex and sadomasochism into a meek melodrama which has the audience questioning what is and isn’t real. This isn’t entirely new territory for the director, whose range varies greatly, however this is the most subtle, gentile variation of his twisted mind.
This very non traditional director juxtaposes melodrama and horror, creating an uncanny world which questions feminine and masculine roles in Japanese society without directly acknowledging them, let alone answering them. Instead, Miike presents the film in a manner that purposely creates confusion, where the viewer is unable to distinguish what is real and what is not. If you believed everything you saw in Audition, he fooled you. It’s a great trick really. He blurred reality and fantasy, creating a state of horror most aren’t prepared for.
Getting to the Nitty Gritty
The premise of the film is simple: a widower, Shigeharu Aoyama, uses a soap opera audition as a dating service in an attempt to find a new wife. This set up is a little unusual, but the world of Audition is about as “normal” as any can get. Aoyama is a nice guy whose wife died many years before the audition takes place. He has a son whom he loves and who wants him to go out and get remarried so that Aoyama can be happy and fulfilled.
The movie has progressed 20 minutes before the audition has even taken place and Aoyama and Asami meet for the first time! For those of you who were told to watch this movie because it’s such a ‘great horror’ film, I bet you wondered what your friend was thinking. There might have been a bit of anxiety wondering when the insanity was going to start. In reality, this slow pace and emphasis on the make up of a family give the appearance of a melodrama instead of a horror film.
This is how Miike sets the viewer up, even though they probably know they’re watching a horror film. As you’re sitting in the theater or on your couch watching, it’s easy to get swept into the story instead of remembering what you’re expecting. It becomes easy to root for Aoyama (played brilliantly by Ryo Ishibashi), because he’s a nice, likable guy.
The film still doesn’t stray from its melodramatic presentation. There is a dinner scene between father and son, including a protective parent reminding his teenager to take a bath. When Aoyama calls Asami, the conversation is a little awkward, but still normal as Miike has scene cuts from Aoyama, a picture of Aoyama’s dead wife and the dog walking through the house. Normal. Even when his friend calls to tell Aoyama that Asami hasn’t been honest; it marks a possible obstacle for the relationship, but doesn’t call attention to anything but melodrama. Shortly after this scene, Aoyama and Asami go on their first date.
It is only then the actuality of this normal world comes into question in a slow and methodical manner. When and where might not be obvious during a first or second viewing, but when it becomes clear and nothing is clear it is jarring.
Clarity of a Scene: What Did I Just See?
As Aoyama and Asami go on their first date (as well as the rest of their scenes together from this point), the mise-en-scene and sound seem ‘off kilter’. The situations are presented in a manner that suggests something is not right without calling attention to it. There are no quick camera pans to the issue. No explicit focus on anything in particular. It all lies within the director’s hands and though Miike is known for getting out a gallon of blood when a drop will do, he refrains in this film. Instead, he goes for tricks in scene depth and shot blocking right from Akira Kurosawa’s arsenal.
Take the first date. In the dining room, Aoyama and Asami eat on the left side of the screen with the camera slightly tilted to look down on them. The largest, most colorful thing on the screen is a bouquet of flowers to the right of the screen. There is no dialogue and the couple isn’t even the focus of the shot. Then, there is a cut to a long shot of a street filled with traffic. The audience sees traffic and people crossing the street to Asami’s voice saying how much she enjoyed their date. Aoyama appears and crosses the street with Asami following closely behind. Most of the scene is in long shot, with the end having quick cuts of mid shots.
Though Aoyama and Asami are having an intimate conversation (about not having someone to talk to and going out on future dates) the scene is played in a long shot and the pair is never actually seen having the conversation. In fact, the camera’s focus isn’t on either of the main characters, focusing on the traffic, then catching Aoyama as he walks by. First instincts are to take the scene for what it is, but since reality versus fantasy becomes a key issue in assessing what happens, the scene must be questioned with regards to ‘was the conversation real’, ‘was the situation real’ or were they two separate events put together in either Aoyama or Asami’s mind? The way the scene is presented is in fact blurring reality.
Role Reversals: A Quick Peek at Japanese Censorship
In all future dates between Aoyama and Asami, there is overlapping of dialogue and visuals which can, but doesn’t necessarily match up together. It places Aoyama in a traditional masculine role (pays for the meals, arranges the dates, makes the calls) and Asami in the traditional feminine role (humble, passive, always explaining herself). Their positioning becomes a heightened presentation of their traditional roles with Japanese society, going so far as to have Asami following loosely behind Aoyama as he walks across the street.
It is only during their vacation where Aoyama wants to propose marriage that their placement within their traditional roles comes into question. The weekend vacation triggers a point in the film where memory and temporal space come into question. You didn’t think you were going to watch a Takashi Miike film and not get tripped up, bamboozled or somehow messed with did you?
The scene where this becomes clear begins with Aoyama mentioning things to do for the evening as Asami sits on the bed, her back to him. She slowly faces him, turns off the lights then begins to disrobe with her back to him. Asami covers her breasts then slips into the bed and under the blankets without a word. There is a cut to Aoyama where Asami is heard saying, “Come to me. Please.” After a moment, the camera (still on Aoyama) pans over to Asami, uniting the couple as she lay covered, only exposing her head. He goes to undress. She asks him to look at her, lifting up the sheets exposing a scarred thigh. She asks and he accepts to love only her, then he removes his clothes and joins her, face to face where they kiss. There is motion suggesting that she pushes him on his back, though visually it is not entirely clear. There is a cut to the sheets consuming them both, with the sound of the ‘snapping’ of crisp sheets. The next morning he wakes up to find that Asami has gone.
Check out the following clip which has the scene set up to music. You won't find the music in the movie, but is an interesting overlay to what is happening on the screen.
Later in the film, the audience finds themselves back at the bed with Aoyama and Asami together (instead of Aoyama alone wondering where she had gone). The return to the initial scene at the end suggests Aoyama either has a faulty memory of the events or that he had a bad dream or that there is issues with the temporal space within the film.
The problematic signs within that space (the bed where they consummated their relationship) are obvious during the second sequence. However, there are signs within the first sequence that suggests that Miike might be playing with sexual positioning between a male and female that harkens back to the censorship that began in the Meiji period (1868-1912). This original censorship of pubic hair has morphed into what some call the negotiating of ‘schizophrenic’ or opposite views of sexuality in modern Japan. It attempts to explain to obvious need for sexual gratification, but without the associating visuals (nudity) required for arousal.
In the first vacation scene, Asami takes great lengths to keep herself covered, even when showing the scars on her thighs. Counter that with the final scene where Aoyama’s foot is shown removed from his body and tossed across the room.
Miike is playing with what is and what is not acceptable to see. It has been suggested that within the Japanese culture you ‘can’t show the penis, but you can show the knife’. This brings into mind another Japanese tale that connects a female’s act of violence, sex and role with the culture.
What's Worse: A Man or a Penis in a Bag?
Films don’t have to be made as social commentary to be social commentary. Aoyama is the representation of the traditional male, but Asami is the representation of a historical female, but not a modern, traditional female that pairs with Aoyama. Asami is Miike’s modern version of Abe Sada, the woman who erotically asphyxiated her lover, cut off his penis, put it in her purse and carried it around town. She was the Lorena Bobbit of her time. Asami is a symbol of a feminine form that links sexual pleasure with violence and mutilation in Audition, but plays on the tropes already known since Abe Sada cut her lover in 1936. The movie’s horrific impact doesn’t come from the use of Abe Sada’s story since Abe Sada’s story was used as inspiration in novels, paintings, philosophy and film. Instead, the impact comes from the normalcy stressed in the early portions of the film juxtaposed with the first scene of Asami in her home with a man in a bag. The audience assumes there is something very wrong, but the proof only comes at that moment. That chick is off her rocker and it is only at that moment that past scenes can come into question. However, they can’t be truly dissected and considered until a second or third viewing.
Miike Messes with your Mind
While playing with tropes familiar to the Japanese culture, Miike seems to have taken the opportunity to hint at a past scene: the first time we see Asami sitting in her rundown home, near an old fashioned phone and a large duffle bag. The phone rings and it is startling when the duffle bag flings around with someone or something inside grunting like an animal. Through all the grunts, the sound of the duffle bag can be heard…a sound that is very similar to the crisp sheets in the vacation scene. Another link between the two scenes is the abrupt motion of the material as it flings across the screen from right to left. The motion of the bag is similar to the motion of the sheets as Asami tosses them over Aoyama. The link between the act of sex and of violence comes together, but in a way that might not be obvious.
Those long scenes of normalcy in the beginning of the movie weren’t in vain. In The Break-up of the National Body: Cosmic Multiculturalism and Films of Miike Takashi (New Cinema. 2.1 2004) Mika Ko says, “Miike destroys the integrity of the fictional worlds he stages or, at least, that the breaking open of the diegetic homogeneity is on of the key characteristics of many of his feature films.” The way Miike blurs what the audience has seen and the facts that have actually occurred in the film causes a horrific feeling that cannot be pointed to directly. There is nothing about the two scenes that directly links them, but their subtleties in their similar presentations allows Miike to use audio and visuals against known tropes to create an imaginary foundation for Aoyama and Asami’s relationship.
Sex and Violence: A Standard in Miike’s World
The connection between Aoyama and Asami’s first sexual encounter and the audiences first shot of something horrific is a visual and audio sensation. This suggestion of repetition connects sex and violence without ever putting them together on screen. However, he presents the reality of the world through misremembered, hallucinatory flashbacks. The key to this is that Miike never indicates that what the audience is seeing is misremembered, hallucinatory or a flashback until the last scene where Aoyama finally sees Asami for the demented woman she is.
It isn’t until the last 15 minutes of the film where a short montage of Aoyama’s memories of his relationship with Asami is shown. All those unusual shot choices, the presentation of people within a scene, then absent and Asami’s dialogue with altered content emerge. Not only is Aoyama dragged into reality, but so is the viewer. All those scenes, shots and dialogue that Aoyama misremembered are re-presented to the audience. Even before Asami makes her first cut into Aoyama’s flesh, the horror of false memories engulfs the audience while only giving them a short time to rack their brain about what they might have missed. If Miike had not started with a melodramatic story first then he would not have been able to blur the real and fantasy world in which he creates.
It appears that Miike is using outdated Japanese tropes as means shock and horrify modern audiences. Miike obfuscates the sexual scene and melds it with a scene filled with grotesque content in a manner with boggles the mind. It is meant to make you uneasy without being as blatant as cutting off a foot or jamming a needle into an eye. It is those moments before Aoyama’s blood is shed that the horror becomes real for both Aoyama and the audience. It is because of the way Miike creates confusion between fantasy and reality as well as drawing on what the audience already knows about feminine and masculine roles within Japanese society. By playing with these themes in such a subtle manner, Miike creates a world that gave me the chills.
Some Quick Facts
Actress Eihi Shiina who plays Asami also stars in Tokyo Gore Police (Nishimura, 2008) and Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl (Nishimura, 2009).
Actor Ryo Ishibashi who plays Aoyama also stars in The Grudge (Shimizo, 2004) and The Grudge 2 (Shimizo, 2006) as the detective trying to help Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Director Takashi Miike has averaged about 4 films a year since his directorial debut in 1991. Eat your heart out Samuel L. Jackson.