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The twisted dynamics of “Audition” still cut deeper than any razor wire

Takashi Miike’s extreme cinema staple is available on multiple streaming platforms and hits MUBI on February 20 with a 2K restoration.

Takashi Miike’s extreme cinema staple is available on multiple streaming platforms and hits MUBI on February 20 with a 2K restoration.

Over twenty years after its premiere, Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999) remains an integral part of the extreme cinema conversation. Hopping from late-night bootleg screenings in universities’ fine arts movie clubs in the early aughts to modern streaming platforms, including Shudder and MUBI (on February 20), the film has pervaded the global cultural memory. Yet, its infamous torture horrors only account for a part (if you will) of its reality, which function in tandem with the coy artistic restraints of the former half’s sleazy, yet somehow intimate melodrama sourced from Ryu Murakami’s 1997 text. For those with interminable interest in a chasmic emotional range, there’s nothing quite as perturbing as the film’s chauvinistic social discomforts ascending into a shattering and surreal comeuppance for middle-aged widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi).

Ostensibly, the narrative is one of contrivance that, on surface level, commentates on the subjugation of the audition process itself. Since Shigeharu’s wife Ryoko passed seven years ago, his teenage son casually remarks that his father marry again to avoid looking worn out. Shigeharu’s fellow producer friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) then hatches a scheme to set up a mock audition process for a re-written documentary they once produced entitled “Tomorrow’s Heroine.” The two men begin to scrutinize a range of younger women who come in for a part inspired by a real ex-ballerina. Shigeharu has already rendered the objectifying interviews pointless, though, when he serendipitously finds an incisive essay about confronting death, written by a reticent woman in white who suffered a hip injury, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina). Completely taken with her formally submissive personality, Shigeharu resists sensible scrutiny of her character and succumbs to the “love at first sight” fabrication that’s inherently built into the duplicitous nature of the audition.

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Even in the soapy, backlit hospital prologue and generally subdued drama, Miike’s film possesses a kind of murky, disquieting ambiance that’s complemented by the camera of cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto’s slow, sauntering glide that seems at once unreliably voyeuristic and omniscient. This sweeping dimension paired with Yasushi Shimamura’s fluid editing elevate the film over those of its North American ilk in the early-late 2000s— like Lucky McKee’s May (2002), the broader directorial efforts of Eli Roth, the Soska Sisters, and Rob Zombie— which are constructed around, but don’t quite intuitively challenge, exploitation cinema tropes. Audition‘s execution is more deliberate and knowing, particularly in the way it steadily bridges genres and conjures the ominous devices of Asami, who intensely mirrors the subtle predatory behavior of Shigeharu, her pursuer.

Her initial reveal, sitting poised and motionless with back to the camera, is less about the idea of the men considering her performative range for this role than studying the overeager expressions of Shigeharu. Here, Miike compounds every misleading first impression that is exacerbated by humans’ inherent desire for authenticity and sense of control. Audition rather tragically argues that certain societal constructs have made it impossible to discern in our constant auditioning for acceptance, which the film brutally foreshadows in a spiral descent of abuse and vengeance. In the ensuing decades, “auditioning” has only been further clouded by avatars and personae associated with social media, cam sites, and streaming platforms. Despite being shot at the tail-end of the twentieth century, for all its twisted dynamics that cut deeper than any razor wire, Audition is perhaps the first entry of essential twenty-first century horror.

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