'Audition' Still Creepy-as-Hell -- Film Review

Directed by: Takashi Miike, Runtime: 115 minutes
Grade: B+

Japanese director Takashi Miike has been branded one of the genre's most gripping auteurs for many reasons, but the primary one comes packaged in a blood-soaked, barbed-wire little firecracker entitled Audition (Ōdishon). Yet, you'd be very hard-pressed to believe such a statement by watching the first half of the film. Cleverly disguised as a family story with little more than a dark secret lying underneath, though Takashi Miike fans know better, it finally explodes after impatiently watching the fuse inch closer and closer to the conclusion. But the explosion, in all its frightening morbidity, likely won't leave your thoughts for many days afterward -- showcasing that Audition's seemingly deflated character work was merely the framework for a masterful slow-burning nightmare.

When Audition starts, we wonder what exactly we're looking at -- if it's going to be Wes Craven's Music of the Heart or David Lynch's The Straight Story all over again. The first scenes feature a somber, intimate hospital room where father Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) and his young son say goodbye to their recently-deceased mother. It cuts several years down the line, where the father/son dynamic has strengthened into something special amid their pain. But there's something not obviously missing from Aoyama's life, as pointed out by both his son (Tetsu Sawaki) and his work colleague Yasuhisa Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura): he needs a new wife, while he knows very few eligible bachelorettes.

Here's where the title comes into light: the rusty, woman-shy Aoyama and Yoshikawa cook up a fake audition for an acting job, bringing them all up front-and-center in a way that'll give Aoyama a good look at a large array of (presumably) attractive women. Director Miike uses this opportunity to comfortably lure us into an upbeat mood, watching as the two men ogle and critique several candidates in a fashion that's pretty comical. At least, it's all fun and games until the delicate and understated ex-dancer Asami walks into the room -- and Aoyama becomes smitten with her emotional fragility. At this point, the film's almost begging us to accept its tranquility head-on.

Miike's at his best in Ichi the Killer and Gozu when he's operating with outlandish gore and surrealist imagery, both of which play vital yet camouflaged roles in Audition. The graceful drama almost never intersects with his other-worldly darkness, his diverse strengths instead being scattered throughout the slow-burning suspense in provocative fashions. This allows for a gentle, ambient style of terror to slowly creep behind his audience, masked by good intentions, rather tightly-executed human interaction, and a simple yet charming sense of humor (which, if you've seen Happiness of the Katakuris, you know he's certainly got a humor femur or two). Miike's almost begging you to find some form of comfort with Aoyama's situation, almost trying to sedate his audience to a degree where they drop their guard -- acting as both a tactic to play with fresh eyes and a nod to a more Miike-weathered audience expecting something, well, more.

Audition aims to establish a strong sense of legitimacy behind the family bond, boasting its firm construction like an "invincible" drunken guy at a bar begging for a punch to the stomach or a castle claiming impenetrable walls. It challenges the audience to empathize with Ryo Ishibashi's performance as the heartbroken-yet-healing father, which can claim a lot of ownership to the dramatic qualities. It gives us a tangible character in Aoyama with which we strongly identify, something that very, very few horror films can actually claim -- a true sense of sentiment behind the lead. Eventually, of course, we'll wish that we didn't identify with the family and that those walls were a great deal stronger.

Innocent little Asami, played by Eihi Shiina, give us a reason to spin around rapidly and see what's been creeping behind us from the start of Audition. Little hints are scattered throughout that pave the way for something deeper and darker in her past, yet her complacent disposition never reveals anything at an inopportune time. She's enchanting in all the wrong ways, unbearable stone-faced in her facial expressions, and quite possibly one of the most highly regarded villains in all of horror. Witnessing the tension swelling amid her presence is something akin to watching a razor-tipped pendulum swinging backwards and forwards onto an unsuspecting victim; you have a hunch that it's going to lead towards the demise of the person underneath, but you can't help but stare with breathless awe as it swings closer and closer. And, without question, Takashi Miike doesn't leave us dissatisfied, pumping it full of gender-flipped potency that would likely make In the Realm of the Senses' director Nagisa Oshima proud.

As Audition quickly begins to unspool at its spellbinding third act, the look of chaotic disbelief on fresh watchers' faces is the stuff horror legends are made of. It builds into something utterly terrifying and grisly within a whirlwind barrage of abrasive surreality, swelling with near-unbearable tension as its climax -- heralded by many as one of the most frightening and grotesque scenes in all of horror -- works its masochistic magic. Time after time in front of this arresting little horror masterwork, it has yet to fail in causing my head to spin in a lightheaded stupor at its pinnacle of exploitative, grindhouse-style monstrosity. Superb acting and taut, shiver-inducing production values make its improbable constriction in narrative seem much more viable than we'd ever really want it to, while brandishing returners to its guttural intensity as near-masochists. A thought arises before each screening of Audition, something to the tune of "Why on earth should this be watched again?" The answer lies in Takashi Miike's excellence in manipulating our perception of the normal into anything but, mounting into a shocking horror classic that endures because of its ability to lure us into a nightmare -- then tear our senses to shreds.


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