Post Millennial Trauma Part 1: Audition (2000)
This century has so far been really dreadful for horror and as a result we spend a quite remarkable amount of time debating torture porn: is such and such a torture porn film, what qualifies as torture porn, if that qualifies then why doesn’t this, and so forth. So once every now and again I’m going to look at a Horror film from each year in the 21st Century that I think is worth a look. From the outset, let me make this crystal clear: I hate torture porn. Eli Roth and his foul ilk can go and suck a fat one as far as I’m concerned. So, there will be little of that evil nonsense polluting this series.
So, here we go, the first of the Post Millennial Horror films: Audition.
Before I carry on, because it’s relevant for later on. I’m going to loosely define Torture Porn- what it means for me. This is not a universal definition, and I will probably break my own rules heavily several times. Pornography doesn’t have to be sexual. The actual definition of pornography refers to the obscene and the gratuitous purely done for titillation. There usually is a sexual nature, obviously, but I think the word is properly applied in this context. For me, any film that relies heavily and exclusively on lascivious and excessive torture to elicit any emotional response will usually qualify, particularly if it is in lieu of any other actual tension. I will consider the characterisation as Torture Porn classically does not have properly drawn characters- these victims exist solely as meat puppets for the film makers to damage. I will consider how the torture is shot, and I will also consider it’s purpose in the film. Marathon Man, for example, has one of the most agonising scenes of torture ever put on celluloid, but I don’t consider that to be TP. Torture Porn by definition has to be exploitative, but that doesn’t mean that every exploitation film is Torture Porn.
Now that is out of the way, on with the review. Minor quibbling about the release date aside, Audition is arguably the first of the 21st Century’s great horror films (I’m ignoring the festival appearance in Canada for the purposes of this series. IMDB has every other country in the world (including Japan) releasing this post-2000). Takashi Miike has banged out somewhere in the region of 50 films at a frankly scary rate since the turn of the century, and in my opinion the vast majority of them are unpleasant deliberately odious toss. However, in the massive amount of dreck that he spins out a few films stand out as being legitimately interesting. Audition is one of them, and probably the only one that I could consider to be a great film.
Ryo Ishibashi plays Aoyama. Aoyama has never really come to terms with the death of his wife, and after 7 long years, his son Shigehiko tells him that he needs to remarry. So with no further ado, film executive Aoyama abuses his connections (best friend Yoshikawa) to set up a supremely dubious audition. The audition is ostensibly for the movie, but in reality is to find a new bride. Eihi Shiina’s Asami is his preferred candidate. Anyhow, the film follows their relationship before culminating in a horrendous torture sequence that is almost beyond description.
First things first, the acting in this, particularly from Shiina, is absolutely stunning. Her performance is ostensibly submissive, but actually deeply unhinged. She’s a sadist with a smile, an enchanting and deeply unstable woman, and although Aoyama doesn’t help himself out (I’ll come to this when I look at the end) it’s really very easy to see how he fell into her web. Furthermore, it’s an absolutely nightmare inducing turn- she’s both intent and practically orgasmic when dealing out the pain and hearing her trill “kiri kiri kiri” makes a shiver crawl up my spine thinking about it. Ishibashi is good as Aoyama, but he’s completely outclassed.
Secondly, Audition is, while a grizzly horror film, also dealing with some quite serious issues. The writing, I do have to say, is brilliant, handling a lot of subtext and thematically difficult topics with some significant aplomb never once losing sight of the fact that it is a horror film. The early conversations between Aoyama and Yoshikawa about what he’s looking for in a woman (hint: A geisha) and how he feels as “nervous as I did when I bought my first car” are astonishingly misogynistic. For Aoyama and Yoshikawa, who are clearly meant to be indicative of modern Japan, women are possessions, in the worst case, actually, little more than meat. The fact that the film climaxes with Aoyama as meat is a clever reversal of this, not to mention a subtle dig at horrific shite like Guinea Pig or Hentai (the torture involves insertion of multiple foreign objects into Aoyoma’s body- not quite tentacle rape, but still) which tend to feature women on the receiving end of a huge variety of foul abuses. Unusually for Miike (this is the man who filled a bucket with actual human semen for Ichi), there’s a strong feminist subtext to Audition, although he does vehemently deny any social commentary. But he would, seeing as he’s nothing if not contradictory.
The direction for Audition is probably its strongest suit. The pace is glacial, and deliberately slow. This is surprising, given that Miike films that I’ve seen usually clip along at a fair old rate, but the first hour of Audition is positively snail-like in comparison. This is a wise decision on his behalf, as it allows tension to build, and there’s a moment about 30 minutes in that signals a clear change of gears in the film (the scene in the apartment with the sack). Nothing really happens, but there’s a clear feeling of wrongness to Asami and the sequences with her waiting for the phone to ring accentuate this. By the time the messy climax of the film comes, (and it’s completely inevitable by the way) it is almost a relief as it dissipates the tension and serves as both shocking and frightening. Secondly, the last 45 minutes of the film have a hallucinatory quality- they’re dream-like (this is broken by the final shot of the film), and there’s the strong feeling that these terrible things haven’t actually happened to the poor mug. They have, clearly, but the hallucination serves a dual purpose in both diluting the impact and allowing alternative interpretations. Miike revisits the earlier dating scenes, and films them from her angle as opposed to his, and supplies her actual dialogue, rather than what he thinks he has been listening to. He basically was not paying attention to her, and her actual past is horrific. It’s no wonder she’s a sociopath.
Which brings me round to the climax of the film, and is it torture porn? I’m on the fence about this. Last night, when I first watched it, I was absolutely convinced that the climax was torture porn. However, on reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that unlike the vast majority of TP, where the pain is basically entirely necessary and totally meaningless, the torture in Audition serves a function. There’s nobody on the planet that watches this film and hollers when the piano wire comes out, this is a very, very heavy sequence. Don’t get me wrong, it’s gruelling to sit through, but it isn’t for titillation. There’s no pleasure at all to be taken from Aoyama’s suffering, and that, in my opinion is what qualifies it as not being Torture Porn.
So, then, what is Audition? It’s a very, very high class stalker film with a message. Asami is a stone cold sociopath but the film isn’t about revelling in her depravity. It’s frightening, but what is really, really scary is that Audition rips open a vulnerability in the main character that is potentially present in all of us: Aoyama is massively selfish, but desperate for companionship and it’s the subversion of genuine human emotion ending in a positively brutal, but deeply inevitable, mess that makes this a taut and frightening film.
The esteemed Bartleby put it best the other day, Audion is a film of impressive artistry, however it’s like admiring the form of someone kicking you just as he whacks you in the bollocks. It’s a simply stupendous film, but probably one of the hardest films to watch that I’ve ever made it to the end of, and I doubt very much if I’ll be watching it again.
I know for a fact that Mrs. Jarv won’t, being as it gave her nightmares.
So, how to rate Audition- well, all these films are ones that I hold in quite high regard, so it’ll be no surprise to see a series of very, very high ratings here. Audition, for me, has absolutely no rewatchability, and it is for this reason that I’m clipping it half a rating point. It’s a devastating borderline masterpiece, but I can’t honestly either recommend it or say that I’ll ever be inflicting it upon myself again. Brutal, uncompromising and frankly terrifying, I give Audition Three and a Half Droids hiding behind the sofa out of Four, but with the proviso that anyone that watches it based on this rating does so entirely without my blessing. You have been warned.
Next up is another barnstorming film: 2001’s Ginger Snaps.