Regarded as the “vanguard of a new wave of cult film,” Audition (dir. Takashi Miike, 1999) was initially introduced to its Western audiences as a part of Tartan’s Asian Extreme release in the UK in 2001. It was a “cultural grenade” that polarized any critic and viewer that came near it, prompting a plethora of negative and positive reviews alike. (Martin 65) Critics jumped on the chance to utilize the film, in which they deemed a “torture porn” piece, in a discussion of the merits of horror and the integrity of the excess in violence and gore. (42) Amongst those reviews, critics also offered a near unanimous nod to the film’s perceived feminist values. However, by taking a retrospective look at the critical reception of Audition within the framework of Western consumption, it becomes a divulgence of the many still existing shortcomings of cross-cultural film analysis and the debate of horror genre’s cultural value.
Much of Audition’s provocativeness and appeal come from its manipulation of genre and narrative – its twists have become synonymous with the film itself – thus, it is necessary to provide a synopsis when discussing the film’s reception. Audition’s first half reads like a conventional Japanese home drama – widower Aoyama (Ryo Ashibashi) goes wife hunting by holding a false audition and screening young actresses that would fit his ideal profile of a life partner. One applicant holds his interest, Asami (Eihi Shiina), a former ballet dancer, mild-mannered in nature. They begin dating and consummate their relationship on a weekend getaway. Asami then promptly disappears and Aoyama frantically searches for her. The second half of Audition is when the film shifts gear. Conveyed in dissonant surrealistic montages of events entailing their weekend getaway, both Aoyama and the audience are impelled to question the reality of Asami. At the film’s climax, Aoyama returns home and is consequently drugged and tortured by Asami, who severs his foot at the Achilles heel and sticks needles in his body as she exclaims: “Kiri-kiri-kiri-kiri!” (Deeper, deeper, deeper, deeper!) Aoyama falls in and out of dream narratives that elaborate on his guilt and desires as well as Asami’s past abuse at the hands of the men in her life, as well as her own sadism. This act of torture is finally obstructed when Aoyama’s son returns home and kicks Asami down the stairs. Aoyama is left to stare at Asami, dying on the floor as she recites a monologue from a past date about how excited she was to see him again. (Miike)
In a “Midnight Eye” interview in 2001 with Takashi Miike, the director notes that he does not see Auditionas horror nor categorized by genre – “For me, Audition is not horror… It’s a story about a girl who has just slightly strange emotions, so it’s not possible to understand her… I don’t think about genre at all.” (Sato and Mes) Despite Miike’s intent, largely due to Tartan’s strategies of marketing film hype and its entailing critical reputation, Audition had been established as a film of “extreme” and “excessive.” (Martin 42) This reputation became the talking point of critics, and induced the drawing of battle lines. Amidst all the reviews, whether they praise or denounce Audition, lies a subtle commonality, in which these critics happily exploited the film’s niche status and shock value by presenting their reactions as a testament to their decorum and knowledge. Critics praising the merits of body horror in Auditionargue that appreciation, a “correct reading,” is only possible for the trained viewer, a horror fanatic of vast knowledge. (Martin 46) Mark Kermode is one such critic, and he claims “…each film uses body-based special effects to address a range of issues…The novice, however, sees only the dismembered bodies, hears only the screams and groans, reacts only with revulsion or contempt.” (Kermode 61) However, Kermode seemed to have willingly overlooked the atypical viewer who may purely sadistically revel in the spectacle of bloodied parts. Critics repulsed by the body horror in Audition most often lament upon the ruined promise of the film, citing that “narrative cohesion is ultimately sacrificed to wicked thrills,” and that “the film is ultimately let down by a descent into bloody excess.” (qtd. in Martin 52-53) Richard Falcon, writing for Sight & Sound, even contemptuously denotes in his review that “thematic depth and artistic value cannot co-exist with explicit gory violence.” (Falcon 39) The basic formula of these reviews, then, had been to comment on the film’s being excessive, whether one was disgusted or impressed by it, and to discredit opposition by simply stating it a matter of superior taste. The surprising homogeneity amongst these critics in their reviews suggests they were more intent on pandering to a larger and older discussion instead of commenting on the actual film itself, which, upon examination, is a crude showcase of agenda on both sides and a gross dismissal of individual filmic value.
One common reading of Auditionis in regards to its feminist politics, a thematic appraisal found in the majority of reviews regardless of their attitude towards the film. The argument remains the same, that the film is: “punishment for the male sexual triumphalism inherent in Japanese society,” “an extreme outcry against the subjugation of women,” “a critique of traditional male Japanese attitudes towards women,” etc. (Bradshaw; Serpyte; Falcon) But the assumption that the characters in Audition merely represent unambivalent gender and power binaries and their disruption, when they’re clearly based in a society foreign to most Western critics, is a rather questionable and uninformed attempt at dissecting the film. It’s clear that these reviews were built off the stereotype of Japanese women as that of the meek childlike creature, when, in reality, Japan has a high percentage of working married women and are considered the pivot of the family structure. (Berger 110) In modern media, Japanese women are also depicted as assertive and domineering, hailed for their inner strength, “tsuyosa.” (112) In a confrontation at an international conference, upon being probed endlessly to join in on the American feminist act of liberation, a Japanese university student responded – “I don’t think Americans, even women, should lecture us on how we should be liberated. Japanese women are not as weak as you think… We have many strengths you can’t see, and we also have different values than you.” (111) The question of both off-screen and on-screen ‘liberation,’ then, is a much layered and nuanced one. Western critics are prone to see Asami as a femme fatale, but overlook the fact that she is a different kind of femme fatale that had been localized in a Japanese setting when the archetype was imported from Western movies. These femme fatales were an embodiment of the culminating anxieties in the 20th century around the unsuccessful reconciliation of the modern girl, ‘moga,’ and the traditional Japanese woman. But this archetype was never allowed “fully to grow up” in a cultural context distinctly different from that of the west, and to liken Asami to a typical female film noir character is a baseless generalization. (Ima-Izumi 144) What many critics also seem to miss is that the film lacks “feminist intent,” as critic Tom Mes argues – “Feminist intent requires a film to display two factors: an ideological agenda and a sense of judgment, both of which are missing from Audition.” Just as Mes suggests, the film does not depict Aoyama as a “marauding avatar of Japanese patriarchy,” nor particularly deserving of torture, and it does not depict Asami as misunderstood, but rather plainly, as insane. (Hemmann 118) Epitomized in the last scenes of the film, both Asami and Aoyama have been rendered helpless and “there is neither triumph nor pity in those final shots.” (Mes)
It may be evident now that much of the critical reception of Audition in Western film circles had been largely tainted by critics’ early Oriental reading of the film, whether blatant or not. At the time of Audition’s release in the UK, J-horror had been a novel genre, and many reviews inevitably emphasized that sense of alienness and exoticism. In an extreme case, critic Alexander Walker filled his review with rather offensive statements, claiming that the film’s torture sequence was characteristic of “the Far East cinema’s fixation on physical pain.” The tendency to view sadism as constituent of Japan’s culture was not an uncommon one, as this stereotype had stuck around after the second World War. All reviews participated, more or less, in active forms of Othering, most in milder cases than Walker’s, and some, seemingly harmless. (Berger 58) Whether reading the film as a torture porn piece or a feminist piece, critics sought to exhibit their expertise by setting context for the film, but the cited films and filmmakers had little to no relevancy to and actual comparative value with Audition, except in reception or minimal topicality. Comparisons range from Fatal Attraction, based on the two’s supposedly similar gender politics, to the Realm of Senses, based on the two’s supposed contribution to Japan’s imagined state as a “repressed society expressing its darkest perversions” through cinema. (59) The former kind of comparisons further perpetuated the stereotypical image of the oppressed Japanese woman, disguised as an apparent pat on the back to the rare Japanese film with feministic sensibility. The latter kind of comparisons are more glaringly harmful, as Western critics openly voyeuristically indulge in the filmic exposé of a ‘demure’ culture shedding facades and engaging in transgressions. These phenomena call for a necessary de-Westernization. In “The Pitfalls of Cross-cultural Analysis,” Yeh defines the process as such – “to evoke the unconscious in colonial desire that shaped a contemporary Asian subjectivity and unlock the machinery of the colonial enterprise that built prototypes of modern scholarships.” (438) To view Audition under sole Western formulations of thought and cultural values has proved to be an extremely insufficient and inappropriate mode of critical analysis. The aim should be to generate reimagined frameworks that actively consider, compare, and assimilate Eastern and Western contexts instead of presumptuously mimicking the latter.
To this day, Audition remains a subject of controversy. Unlike its earlier treatment in critical reception, it is no longer a mere vessel for critics to project and substantiate their subjectivity and bias, but applauded as a film of eminence in its own right. In a 2019 review of Audition, Scott Tobias gives a heartening retrospective look at the film: “…Audition opened up new frontiers for the genre, not merely in how graphic it could get, but how ambitious in theme and form… [and part of] a collective effort to bring horror in line with 21st century, real world atrocities.”
Berger, Michael. “Japanese Women – Old Images and New Realities.” Dimensions of Contemporary Japan, 1998, pp. 112-124.
Bradshaw, Peter. “Beauty and the Beasts.” The Guardian, Guardian News & Media16 March 2001
Falcon, Richard. “Audition.” Sight & Sound, March 2001.
Hemmann, Kathryn. “Illusions, Reality and Fearsome Femininity in Takashi Miike’s Audition.” Gender and Contemporary Horror in Comics, Games and Transmedia, Emerald Publishing Limited, 2019, pp. 109-120.
Ima-Izumi, Yoko. “A Land Where Femmes Fatales Fear to Tread: Eroticism and Japanese Cinema.” Japan Review, no. 10, 1998, pp. 123-150. JSTOR.
Martin, Daniel. “Cinema of Cruelty: The Birth of Asia Extreme and Miike Takashi’s Audition.” Extreme Asia: The Rise of Cult Cinema from the Far East, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2015, pp. 41-70. JSTOR.
Mes, Tom. “Midnight Eye Review: Audition.” Midnight Eye, 20 March 2001.
Kermode, Mark. “I Was a Teenage Horror Fan, or, ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Linda Blair.’” Ill Effects: the Media/Violence Debate, by Martin Barker and Julian Betley, Routledge, 2006, pp. 57–66.
Sato, Kuriko, and Tom Mes. “Takashi Miike.” Midnight Eye, Apr. 2001.
Serpytyte, Agne. “Audition.” The Asian Cinema Blog, WordPress, 24 September.
Tobias, Scott. “Takashi Miike’s Audition realized the potential of extreme horror.” Polygon, Vox Media, 28 August 2019.
Walker, Alexander. “The Cutting Edge of Censorship; Films.” The Evening Standard, 15 March 2001.
Yeh, Emilie Yueh-Yu. “Pitfalls of Cross-Cultural Analysis: Chinese Wenyi Film and Melodrama.” Asian Journal of Communication, vol. 19, no. 4, 2009, pp. 438–452.
Miike, Takashi, director. Audition. Basara Pictures, 1999.
An analysis of the pitfalls of cross-cultural film study as well as a questioning of horror’s artistic and cultural merits, using the case study of Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999).