If there is anything predictable about director Takashi Miike, it would have to be his unpredictability, as well as penchant for the extreme. As one of the most prolific filmmakers working in Japanese cinema today, cranking out an average of four to five films per year, you can never know what to expect when you walk into a theatre showing a Miike film. His "City of Lost Souls (Hyôryuu-gai)" from 2000 detailed the fantastic adventures of a Brazilian-Japanese thug and his Chinese girlfriend on the run from gangsters, interspersed with cockfights à la "The Matrix". His "The Happiness of the Katakuris (Katakuri-ke no kôfuku)" from 2001 takes the cult Korean black comedy "The Quiet Family (Choyonghan kajok)" and remakes it into a full-blown musical. 1999's "Dead or Alive", a crime-thriller about a driven cop who is caught in the middle of an all-out war between Chinese and Japanese gangsters, is rife with the sort of nasty imagery that would curdle milk in thirty seconds, though it is nowhere as repulsive as the perversities committed to film in his so-called 'comedy' "Visitor Q (Bizita Q)" from 2001.
"Audition (Odishon)", which recently enjoyed a North American DVD release, is yet another example of the disturbing diversity found in the oeuvre of Miike. Though "Audition" starts off quietly enough as a romantic melodrama with a hint of supernatural elements, it takes a sharp left turn and becomes a powerful and thought-provoking look at Japanese sexual politics, laced with unforgettable images that will leave you scarred for life.
Based on the novel by Ryu Murakami (who also directed the infamous "Tokyo Decadence"), the title comes from the scheme hatched by middle-aged widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi of Takeshi Kitano's "Brother") in a bid to find a wife. With the help of a film producer friend, young actresses are brought in to audition for a non-existent film, in the hopes that Aoyama can find his ideal 'beautiful, classy, and obedient' woman among the candidates. However, even before the auditions begin, the written application of one woman, Asami Yamazaki (fashion model Eihi Shiina), catches his eye. And when Aoyama finally sees her in person during the audition, dressed in virginal white, he is hopelessly smitten.
Wasting no time, he asks Asami out on a series of dates, and quickly becomes convinced that she is 'the one'. However, preliminary background investigation on Asami reveals that parts of her biography don't check out. Furthermore, as Aoyama digs further into her past, he learns that her former acquaintances have either disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances. Unfortunately, by the time Aoyama realizes what is going on, it is too late-- he is ensnared in a trap and pays the ultimate price for his chauvinistic mores.
A key reason why "Audition" is so shocking is that Miike is brilliant at misdirection. The film starts off quietly in the guise of a romantic comedy or melodrama. However, as the mystery grows around Asami, Miike shoots her as a ghostly, unworldly figure, suggesting that she may be some kind of malevolent spirit, and that the film is in fact some type of supernatural tale. It is here that viewers get one of the film's first big scares-- as a phone in her apartment rings, a dishevelled Asami smiles in an evil manner while a large bag sitting on the floor BEGINS TO MOVE. In what will become a regular pattern, viewers will begin to ask themselves, "What the &%@# is going on?" every few minutes.
Then things get really strange as Aoyama then experiences what appears to be a hallucinatory dream that incorporates flashbacks of his dates with Asami (only with altered dialogue), bizarre visions of Asami's apartment (including what is actually in the rolling bag), and other random (not to mention ghastly) images combined into one mind-bending gestalt. However, similar to the technique used by David Lynch ("Mulholland Drive"), this hallucinatory dream sequence actually ends up revealing plot points and aspects of Aoyama's character, such as feelings of repressed guilt over the bogus audition, his 'Lolita' fantasies over his teenage son's new girlfriend, and his misogynistic tendencies, including the mistreatment of one of his own office employees.
However, by the time the last reel rolls around, Miike finally reveals his true intentions, and they aren't pretty. Instead of a pretty romantic melodrama or a supernatural horror story, "Audition" earns its R-rating as an uncompromising cautionary tale of the sexual tables being turned on a man. The film's final reel is a draining ordeal to sit through, as Aoyama is ensnared in the trap of his 'beautiful, classy, and obedient' wife-to-be and is subject to some of the most gut-wrenching scenes of torture ever captured on film. After watching this, it is doubtful that anyone could easily erase Aoyama's ordeal from their mind, or not have a violent reaction upon hearing the phrase "kitty kitty kitty". However, given that this scene has the same fluid and free-association qualities of the prior dream sequence, it may be that Aoyama's torture may not have actually 'happened', and may merely have been the product of his guilt-ridden psyche.
Love it or hate it, there is little doubt that "Audition" is one of the most unforgettable films in recent years. With its brilliant and suspenseful misdirection, harsh yet provocative look at sexual politics, and disturbing imagery, "Audition" rolls up social commentary, horror films, and perhaps even snuff films into one post-traumatic-stress-disorder-inducing package. This is Takashi Miike at his best.