Audition (1999) Audition/Odishon (1999/2000) ***˝

     Settle down, folks. This is not the legendary softcore porno that supposedly had to be withdrawn from circulation due to the presence in the cast of a maybe-not-quite-legal-yet Linnea Quigley (although I think I know where I can get my hands on a copy of that one, so I may get around to it someday). No, this is an exceptionally twisted Japanese film that starts off like a lightweight— if slightly bent— romantic comedy, only to take a sharp left turn into territories of insanity and nastiness similar to those explored with such bracing success by David Lynch and David Cronenberg.

     We are first introduced to self-employed businessman Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi, from American Yakuza and Another Lonely Hitman) and his son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), as they gather around the deathbed of Shigeharu’s wife, Ryoko (Miyuki Matsuda). Seven years later, Aoyama is still single, having devoted all of his energies in the time since his wife’s death to his son and his company. It has not been an easy life, and one day, Shigehiko suggests to his father that he should get married again. After thinking it over for a while, Aoyama concludes that his son is right, and that it would do him a world of good to have a woman in his life again. The only trouble is, the only women Aoyama knows are his secretary, Michio Yanagida (Shadow of the Wraith’s Yuriko Hirooka), and his part-time housekeeper, Rie (Toshie Negishi, of Don’t Look Up and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris). Rie is married, and Michio is about to be (despite her harboring a crush on her boss that is obvious to everyone but Aoyama himself), so neither one is of any use to Aoyama as a potential mate.

     Then one day, while Aoyama and his TV and film producer friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura, from Ichi the Killer and Chaos), are talking over drinks after work, Yoshikawa comes up with an idea for getting his friend a woman that’s so crazy it just might work. Yoshikawa has recently been given a script for a romance movie involving a love triangle with a Down Syndrome patient at one of its corners, which is scheduled to begin pre-production in a few weeks. Aoyama could pose as Yoshikawa’s associate producer during the auditions for the film’s female lead, secretly auditioning the prospective starlets for the role of his new girlfriend at the same time! Like I said, it’s insane, but somehow also brilliant.

     The moment he secures his friend’s permission, Yoshikawa begins forwarding all the resumes he receives from interested actresses to Aoyama. Yoshikawa tells Aoyama to select thirty girls from the applicant pool, and gives him some pointers on how to separate truth from exaggeration and outright bullshit in an actress’s resume. After much surprisingly hard work, Aoyama does manage to pick out thirty reasonably likely prospects, but there is one resume in particular that seizes his attention. Asami Yamasaki (Eihi Shiina, later of Tokyo Gore Police) is certainly cute enough, but it’s her biographical essay that really fires Aoyama’s imagination. In it, Asami discusses with surprising eloquence the emotional impact of a hip injury that put an end to her ambitions to be a professional ballerina, comparing the experience of putting a lifelong dream behind her to that of learning to accept a loved one’s death. Given that Aoyama is still struggling to accept the death of his wife, it’s easy to understand why this kind of thing would make such an impression on him. And when Asami comes in to interview for the acting job, Aoyama is just as taken with her in person as he was through the medium of her essay. Whatever may come of the movie (probably nothing; it’s almost certainly too ridiculous to get financing), Aoyama thinks he’s found his girl.

     Despite strong advice to the contrary from Yoshikawa (who doesn’t trust her for reasons he can’t really explain), Aoyama begins calling Asami on the phone within days of her interview. Eventually, the two arrange to meet for lunch, and they hit it off immediately. But Yoshikawa now has something concrete with which to substantiate his mistrust of the girl. While checking her references, Yoshikawa discovered that Asami’s supposed contact at the record label which she claimed had expressed some tentative interest in her doesn’t actually work there. He did once, to be sure, but the man went missing a year ago, and has never been heard from since. And what’s more, we know a couple of things about Asami’s lifestyle that the movie’s characters don’t. The apartment where she lives scarcely seems fit for human habitation, and looks to be completely empty apart from two things: an old-fashioned rotary-dial telephone and an enormous canvass sack that moves from time to time. (The first time we see the sack move makes for one of the most effective jolt scenes I’ve witnessed in years, and is all the more impressive for the fact that there is absolutely nothing overtly gruesome about it.) Where does she sleep? What does she eat? Where does she keep her clothes? Who knows, but it certainly seems that Aoyama has a bit more to worry about with Asami than the usual snares that lie in wait for a lonely man who gets himself entangled with a woman twenty years his junior.

     Nevertheless, Aoyama is completely smitten with her, and he soon makes arrangements for the two of them to go on vacation together, for a getaway over the course of which Aoyama plans to propose marriage to her. Another red flag goes up on their first day in the hotel room, when Asami shows Aoyama a burn scar that she claims was the result of an accident, but which is positioned on her body in such a way as to speak unmistakably of childhood physical abuse. Finally, our suspicions that Asami is one flaky chick are confirmed when Aoyama awakens after his first time in bed with her to find his new girlfriend gone, not just from the bed or the room, but from the hotel, and indeed the entire resort. And it’s about this time that Aoyama realizes his almost total ignorance regarding Asami’s day-to-day life— where she lives, where she works, how to find her if she should decide to stop answering her phone (which, of course, she does).

     In fact, just about the only pieces of information Aoyama possesses are the name of Asami’s old ballet school, and that of the bar where she sometimes works part time. What he finds when he investigates these two leads is not good. The ballet school is closed— boarded up and falling to pieces— but it is not entirely unoccupied. Its former proprietor (Renji Ishibashi, whom director Takashi Miike would use again in The Great Yokai War and Gozu), now an insane old cripple, seems actually to live there, but all Aoyama can get out of him is a warning to avoid Asami like the Asian swine flu and the understanding that this is the man responsible for those strange burns on Asami’s inner thigh. (Although whether the ballet teacher tells Aoyama this, or whether it’s just something he intuits from the cripple’s manner is left unclear.) The revelations that confront Aoyama at the Stone Fish bar are, if anything, even worse. The Stone Fish is closed as well, and has been for roughly a year, since its owner was murdered and cut to pieces after-hours one night. (Note that it was also roughly a year ago that Asami’s record-company contact vanished without a trace.) The strangest part of this story (related by the man who lives in the apartment above the bar) is that when the police tried to reassemble the owner’s body, they found themselves left with a few spares: three extra fingers, a surplus ear, and a second tongue!

     Alright, then; we have just been dumped unceremoniously into Lynch-Cronenberg land. We have also reached the point at which I’m going to shut my big, fat mouth, and force you to discover the rest by actually subjecting yourself to Audition. And make no mistake, “subjecting yourself” is the right phrase to describe the experience of watching Audition’s final 45 minutes. When Aoyama finally does find Asami, he’s going to have excellent cause to wish he hadn’t, and you in the audience are going to need an iron stomach and nerves of steel, especially if you’re one of those people who harbors an especial dread of needles. Granted, there are any number of films that present atrocities far worse than anything you’ll see here (all those loathsome Japanese sex-torture flicks, for example), but Audition has far more impact for two reasons. First, there’s the fact that the ghoulish final act comes almost completely out of nowhere, and is presented in such a thoroughly disorienting way that it’s difficult to be sure at any given moment whether you’re eavesdropping on someone’s hallucination or witnessing events in the “real” world. Second, Miike waits until he has finished making you care about his characters before dropping them (and the audience) down the greased chute to Hell. It’s an idea that’s been repeated so many times as to become a movie review cliche, but it remains as true as it was the first time it was written: if a movie’s creators have succeeded in making you look at the characters as real human beings, it’s going to get to you when even minor unpleasantness befalls them. Seeing them put through something like the last third of Audition is likely to make you feel like you’ve been hit in the gut with a flying bowling ball. By all means check it out, but don’t say I didn’t warn you...



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