Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Audition conceals its horror under the skin of a different genre

Scenic RoutesIn Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.

Most horror movies are deliberately misleading at the outset, even though audiences presumably know what they’re in for when they sit down. Horror sequels will sometimes open with violence, proceeding from the events of the previous installment, and occasionally show a stand-alone film with a nightmarish prologue, meant to jolt viewers so they won’t feel restless during the fake normalcy. But there’s always a lengthy calm before the storm, during which the movie does its best to pretend that everything is perfectly ordinary and that these characters are just going about their mundane lives. Discordant notes start creeping in gradually, to be initially ignored or dismissed by the people on-screen. (The fools!) This is the part of a horror movie that gets skipped right past on umpteenth DVD viewings, once viewers know the story and are eager to get to the good stuff. It’s also, arguably, the most important part of a horror movie, as it provides the emotional foundation upon which all the scares are built. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, if the non-threatening setup doesn’t work, neither will the terror.

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Takashi Miike’s Audition wears a non-horror disguise longer and more deftly than any other film the genre has ever produced. I’ve long maintained that the ideal way to see it—assuming you knew nothing about it at all—would be to have a (pretty devious) friend hand you a copy on a blank disc, casually recommending that you check it out. For over an hour, Audition perfectly mimics a sedate Japanese romantic drama, taking its cues from masters like Ozu and Mizoguchi; there’s only one moment that qualifies as disturbing, and it’s so brief, and arrives so completely out of left field, that it’s difficult to process (and hence easy to forget) if you don’t know what’s coming. What’s more, that first hour and change constitutes a superb romantic drama, complex and provocative enough to be worth savoring on its own merits. When people talk about Audition, it’s the second half’s sheer insanity that gets all the attention, but the needles and piano wire wielded at the climax would be empty gore without the contextual legwork of the fake-out section.

In particular, Audition works because of the audition. The film’s story involves a lonely widower, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), whose best friend, Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura), a film producer, sets up a phony casting call so that Aoyama can scout a potential second wife. Having perused the headshots and resumes, Aoyama has already developed a strong attraction to one woman, who’s designated #28 in the audition process. But he and Yoshikawa talk to all the other women anyway, and the “good parts” of Audition mean nothing unless this virtuoso parade of ickiness has already wormed its way under your skin. Take a gander.

I mentioned discordant notes earlier, and this scene kicks off with a big one, though it isn’t horror per se. (Our hypothetical clueless viewer wouldn’t be tipped off.) Miike establishes the audition room with a shot of a single empty chair—the one on which the women will sit—in front of a wall with large windows. The shot begins with a loud mechanical noise already in progress, which is shortly revealed to be metal blinds being electronically lowered, shutting out the sunlight. That’s already a discomfiting overture, and it’s somehow heightened by the cut Miike then makes to a closer shot of the empty chair. If the descending window blinds were visible at the moment of the cut, I think the effect would be fairly banal. They aren’t, though. The two shots are framed, distance-wise, and the edit is carefully timed, so that this cut provides a brief sensation of hope that’s almost immediately terminated: We see the blinds coming down; there’s a cut to a closer angle; we instinctively look for the blinds (since they were the object in motion); we don’t see them, though we can still hear the noise they make; then we do see them, inevitably, inexorably. It’s almost cruel. And it demonstrates a formal mastery that the prolific Miike, sadly, has rarely found since.

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The phony auditions get underway, following a brief exchange in which Aoyama (on the right)—for whose benefit this charade is taking place—significantly mutters, “I feel like a criminal.” (This has a bearing on what happens to him later, which the film alternately suggests may be real or may simply be a product of his guilty mind.) Miike here employs a standard rapid-fire montage, seen in any number of movies involving auditions (offhand, I can think of The Commitments, Pitch Perfect, and Bring It On), in which each person gets just a few seconds to (usually) say or do something embarrassing. There’s a bit of that here, as one woman in a cheerleader’s uniform twirls a baton and another woman performs bad flamenco. But most of the embarrassment comes from the other side of the room, as Yoshikawa asks questions that are clearly irrelevant to acting but might well turn up on OKCupid. “Did you ever have sex with someone you didn’t like?” “Have you thought about working in the sex industry?” “What kind of men do you not like?” (And, of course, the classic pickup line “Have you ever seen any Tarkovsky movies?”) It’s a nonstop parade of casual objectification, set to an upbeat, light-jazz score vaguely reminiscent of ’50s and ’60s lounge music.

As the sequence goes on, Miike finds more and more ways to visually dehumanize the auditioning women, all while keeping the tone inappropriately snappy and fun. One woman asks permission to pose a question of her own, but there’s a quick cut before we learn what she wanted to ask. Yoshikawa directs another woman to walk around her chair, and Miike shoots her so that her head is cut off by the top of the frame. An even more rapid-fire montage of the women’s faces gets interrupted by a quick shot of Yoshikawa and Aoyama laughing. Eventually, the sexism gets brazen, with one candidate getting naked (Aoyama’s sheepish look in response is perfect) and Yoshikawa making a note for himself regarding another who says she’s worked in porn. My personal favorite of the bunch is the woman who comes back for a second go, saying she didn’t get a chance to speak her mind the first time. Again, though, this isn’t the collection of losers that usually populates an audition montage. The women are all ordinary, and we never see them act, badly or otherwise. Each one exists solely to be summarily dismissed. Not as actresses, but as themselves.

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Unfortunately, this sequence is way too long for me to include the appearance of #28, Asami, the woman Aoyama’s eager to meet. (She’s briefly seen in this clip, from behind, reading a book, when Aoyama goes to the bathroom.) She and Aoyama will become lovers, and then, uh, some unpleasant stuff will happen. In a way, though, the horror begins here, quietly, without fanfare or sharp implements. This scene in no way justifies what befalls Aoyama (assuming that anything actually does, outside of his imagination), but it does make the carnage meaningful. And it accomplishes this in the guise of a completely different kind of movie—one that doesn’t remotely look as if it’s building to a scene in which a man with hacked-off limbs is forced to lap up vomit like a dog. If you can, find someone with a strong stomach who’s never heard of Audition and try the experiment I suggested above. The results should be fascinating.

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