Audition is an evil film. An open mouthed bear trap of a movie, it spends its first half carefully setting up the bait, establishing a character whom we shouldn’t sympathise with and then tricking us into sympathising with him. Spinning an intoxicating male fantasy, it openly encourages us to become complicit in the plot. and then, just as we are at our most vulnerable, the trap is sprung, and the movie’s terrifying sharp steel teeth spring into our exposed flesh. When it cuts, it cuts deep.
The film’s bait and switch structure has been much discussed, and justifiably so. Audition begins like a drama, before memorably veering off rails into considerably more horrific territory. That said, the less one knows about the plot going in, the better. Suffice to say the film opens with a death, as the quiet, unassuming Shigeharu Aoyama (played with charisma by Ryo Ishibashi) loses his wife to disease. Seven years later he’s still single, despite pressure from his son and friends to reconnect. Eventually, however, he succumbs to a plan dreamt up by his producer friend Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), who suggests they hold a fake casting call in order to find the widower a wife.
Despite a shaky start, Shigeharu soon seems to hit the jackpot, meeting the beautiful and timid Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) through the fake audition. As far as Shigeharu is concerned, she has it all: she’s emotional; beautiful; vulnerable, and desperately in need of protection. Despite the early warning signs that she might not be what she seems, Shigeharu pursues her, convinced that simply by virtue of being male, he has the right to ensnare her, and that she, simply by virtue of being female, has the right to be ensnared. And thus Audition’s true plot is set into motion, and the horrifying violence of the film’s second half begins to unfurl with all of the creaky inevitability of Greek tragedy.
Director Takashi Miike plays a tricky game, openly manipulating the audience. Despite the unpleasant implications of the fake audition, Miike encourages us to like and to empathise with Shigeharu. We have seen his wife die before our very eyes; we feel his pain; and thus excuse him the transgressions of openly lying to Asami. Just as he values his own ‘machismo’ qualities – the arrogance and defiance that he thinks make him a natural born leader – we the audience are encouraged to value these same qualities. We are bound to him.
It is therefore totally justified that we should suffer when Shigeharu suffers. When he gets vividly punished for his fraudulence, so do we, and Miike films the bodily trauma of the movie’s second half with the same morally ambivalent eye that he used to film the emotion of the first. He takes a distinct step back, framing the horrendous torture with all the icy ambivalence of an anthropologist viewing a deceased specimen under glass.
It’s sadistic. It’s unforgettable. And it’s thoroughly, thoroughly twisted. But it’s not – as has been suggested – without a moral compass. Indeed, by its conclusion the film has come to resemble a morality play. Only, it’s not just the movie’s characters that are under scrutiny: we the audience are as well. Audition has the terrifying audacity to stare us right in the eye. And it doesn’t much like what it sees.