Perhaps the most shocking thing about Takashi Miike's 1999 film Audition is that for its first half or so there is nothing shocking about it at all. Miike, a Japanese director known for films featuring perverse images, black humor and extreme violence, spends the first 50 minutes of his nearly two hours run time telling an intimate, emotional, family drama. For anyone who comes to Audition knowing Miike films such as Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, or Izo, watching nearly an hour of cinema in which nothing weird, blood soaked, or insane happens is the craziest twist of all. This is a director whose episode of Masters of Horror was deemed too disturbing to be aired by Showtime.
Audition begins simple enough. We find Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi), an unassuming middle-aged man sitting by his dying wife’s bedside. We see his son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), running down the hall with a homemade get-well card, but she dies before he can give it to her. Miike shoots it like a soap opera complete with warm lighting and sentimental music.
Seven years later, Shigehiko urges his father to begin dating again, to find a new wife. Shigeharu is a traditional Japanese man who wants a shy, submissive wife who will take care of the house and his own desires. Complaining to his friend Yasuhisha (Jun Kunimua), a film producer, that he doesn’t know where to find such women, Yasuhisa devices a plan in which he will set up auditions for the female lead in a romantic movie. But secretly these women will be “auditioning” for Shigeharu to find a wife. Initially, Shigeharu balks at this sexist idea but he soon warms to it.
It is during the audition that some of Miike’s normal sensibilities seep out just a tiny bit. In a goofy montage, we see the women dance, pose, and even take off their clothes, all the while Yasuhisa asks them questions about their sex life and whether or not they do drugs. Shigeharu sets his sights on Asami (Eihi Shiina). She enters the room wearing a dress of virginal white with her head bowed low. She is shy and unassuming, and her essays speaks of a career as a dancer cut short by an injury. Shigeharu compliments her on her courage and calls her later for a date.
Things go well at first and then, well, let's just say they don’t. I do not want to give away any of the film’s many shocks as Audition is a film truly best viewed knowing as little possible going into it. But for those who might be bored by its first half, having come to it expecting Miike’s usual blend of perversity and violence, will not be disappointed by its second half.
As shockingly violent as that back half is, this is not a "violence for violence sake" type of film, nor your typical revenge flick. Shigeharu is a decent, yet flawed man. He seems to be a good guy with friends and a kind son. He is not thrilled with auditioning a wife, but neither does he seem to view women beyond what they can do for him. There is a woman in his office who clearly likes him yet he remains oblivious to her. That his punishment is entirely disproportionate to his sins is true, yet Asami’s reaction is not entirely out of nowhere. The film’s last act becomes hallucinatory with flashbacks and dream sequences merging into reality so it is difficult to know what is real, but it is clear that Asami has been treated poorly, even abused by the men in her life. So that her misinterpreting of social cues is is understandable even if they are totally extreme.
That’s the thing about Miike; he makes films full of extremes that are utterly disturbing, but he’s not doing so with only titillation and shocks in mind. Having directed nearly 100 films in his 27-year career, his films can be a bit slap-dash, but when he’s firing on all cylinders, as he is here, his films are both disturbing and quite fascinating.
Arrow Video has done a 2K restoration of Audition from the original 35mm print. It looks good. I have an old DVD copy and this version is a marked improvement. I didn’t notice any scratches, debris, or other damage. Miike is not known for his stunning cinematography and Audition is no different. The colors are fine, and the blacks look good, but this is not a film to brag about in terms of overall look. Likewise, the audio is good but nothing to get all that excited about.
As per usual with Arrow releases, this disk is chock full of extras, though if you have the Shout! Factory release from a few years ago you’ll be seeing a lot of the same material ported over here. This includes an audio commentary from Takashi Miike and Daisuke Tengan, plus a new commentary from Tom Mes. There are old interviews with Takashi Miike, Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Renji Ishibashi, and Ren Osugi. Then there is an appreciation from Tony Rayns, trailers, an image gallery, and a funny introduction from Miike. Arrow has also included a full-color booklet with an essay on the film.
Audition is Takashi Miike at his best. His most shocking move may have been to make half of a very serious melodrama before doing a right turn into actual shocks and violence. It isn’t a film for everybody, but for those who like what Miike does, this is well worth checking out. Arrow Video’s new restoration looks and sounds good and is full of extras that make collectors like me very happy.