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Quirky Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike positively exploded onto the international scene in 1999 with this unforgettable and challenging exercise in genre bending audience endurance. The film wowed and horrified in equal measure patrons of the art cinema circuit in a number of European countries, before being embraced by horror fans eager for Miike’s sadistic manipulations. Miike self-consciously employs a storytelling style that downplays events and keeps knowledge too a minimum. The pace is purposefully leaden and for large periods of the film nothing happens, boredom sets in very quickly. This 75 minute lethargy is enhanced by long static tableaux shots, acting of the most minimal and a largely silent soundtrack. Miike’s intention here is to emphasis the mundane and draw us into an apathetic and fed up post Millennium Japan. This is part of a dualistic strategy to put the audience into a position of comfort that borders on falling asleep. This is aided by a consistently dull and unappealing mise-en-scene (all greys and browns), muted lighting, and bland décor. Miike shows an artists attention to film form here. It is little surprise he was acclaimed as a visionary auteur when one sees the attention to subtle detail of Audition’s opening half. The muted melodrama is evocative of the languid and unrushed brand of family melodrama that Yasujiro Ozu excelled in. It is a comparison not many would make, but Audition abounds with the modernist echoes of Ozu’s post war dramas.
The shifts in tone and atmosphere are subtle at first. Hints and clues as to Asami’s past and background, fragmentary flashbacks of an abused childhood, enigmatic and ghostly sequences which owe much to the Kaidan or avenging spirit motif popularised in J-horror hits like Ring (1997), the introduction of temporal confusion. The colour scheme also begins to shift, subtly at first, before drenching the film in cold blues, mysterious greens and sickly yellows that hint at the inner decay and perversion to come. Despite this formal explosion, nothing can compare to the films violent denouement. It is shocking, harrowing and difficult to sit through, mainly because of the sound effects, but also because of the obvious enjoyment Asami gains from slowly torturing her helpless male victim.
Miike denies that there is a political reading to be found in Audition but this hasn’t stopped Western critics groping to understand the film through any means possible. In the West it was hailed in some quarters for its feminist qualities, but any attempt to turn Asami into a positive or heroic figure is deeply flawed and controversial. The film also makes perfunctory attempts to discuss the female role in Japanese society, and its clear that male resentment of women in the workplace exists. The film works best from the perspective of gender and audience manipulation. What makes the film so exceptional is that succeeds in an age in which films rarely hold any surprises for us. Most of the secrets a film have are exposed by trailers or clod hopping critics. Miike consciously plays on Western perceptions of Asian cruelty, and its no surprise that its images of sadistic torture found greater success in the west. The film is a melting pot of trans-national signifiers, it plays with Japanese conventions, whilst simultaneously flirting with a western brand of horror and the politics of cult film reception. Audition confirmed Takashi Miike as a filmmaker of note, to laud him as an auteur is perhaps a step too far (Audition was cast, written and budgeted before Miike was invited to direct it), but one thing is certain, Audition is a significant and important film.
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