One of the best things about Takashi Miike’s Ôdishon (Audition, 1999), is that it takes the basic premise of something that does not outwardly feel like a horror film and slowly turns it into one. The set-up feels like that of a very Western romantic comedy. A man who lost his wife wants to meet someone new, but he’s been out of the dating game awhile, and his friend talks him into casting a movie just so that he can secretly use the casting process to find the right girl. It screams of a ‘90s rom-com. It hits on virtually every single one of those tropes. If this basic premise were made for American audiences, it would have starred Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
The inherent problem with these romantic comedy tropes is that they’re almost always sexist to some degree. The guy is misleading the girl and the audience is on his side, they barely even question what he’s doing. That carries over into Audition in a brilliantly pointed way. Aoyama doesn’t much think about what he’s doing, he only jokes that it will make him appear desperate. But the very idea of what he’s doing is just so incredibly gross, and it’s not something that neither he nor the friend who enables him really take the time to think about. They don’t understand the inherent problems with what they’re doing, with lying to tons of women and casting an entire film on false pretenses. They don’t get it. And the fact that they don’t get it is crucial to the movie’s success.
In many ways, it’s easy to read Audition as a black comedy because the tropes it’s focusing on are comedy tropes, by and large. There’s something almost perversely funny in how it pushes things to the absolute extreme when it’s set against that backdrop. The best thing about the film is that as twisted as the situations become and as much as the violence increases, it’s all somewhat earned in a way that none of the male characters ever quite grasp.
It is a natural inclination for men to believe that they have to lie to impress women. Instead of taking the sage advice of “be the best version of yourself,” most men in a dating situation just become an alternate version of themselves. That’s exactly what Aoyama does. It’s a creepy, gross thing that he’s doing but he’s almost entirely ignorant to that.
Enter Asami. She’s his dream girl. She’s beautiful, but the things he loves most about her are pretty uncomfortable. He likes that she’s quiet, well behaved and doesn’t speak out of turn, like he’s a teacher summing up a good student, rather than a man looking at the woman he wants to be his wife. I understand that there are stricter cultural differences that contribute to this, but that’s what I think makes Audition an even stronger statement. It seems obvious to say that Asami is objectified from the first time we see her, but given that it’s the point of the movie, I’ll reiterate it anyway. She is.
As we get to know more about her, we learn that people have been shaping her into this beautiful object for virtually her entire life. She appears almost devoid of personality because no one’s really expected one from her before. She’s been hollowed out and the bulk of her actions stem from her desperation to fill a void inside of her that she didn’t even put there herself.
When the truth about Asami comes to the surface, when the violence and torture begin in full force, there’s a heavy criticism about the film that Asami embodies the worst of the way men tend to see women. Beneath all of the horrific things she’s doing, she’s essentially the most extreme version of a clingy girlfriend who refuses to let go. But of course, she does. She has to. She’s willing to kill both him and his son in order to be the only thing in his life. Asami has had it aggressively fed to her that she is supposed to be something ornamental. She’s less of a girlfriend than an accessory. All she’s learned about relationships is that the woman is there to be seen, to be an object of lust.
It’s natural that she would be confused, even feel abandoned, to see him notice other things and people when their relationship is entirely based on him noticing her. He saw her in a lineup and knew she was the one before she even spoke, which is a key element to why things turn out the way that they do. If he sees other people, if he shares that affectionate gaze with even his son, it essentially tells her that she has no place and purpose.
It’s worth noting that the more Asami starts to reciprocate the affection, the more nervous Aoyama becomes. He starts seeing her as obsessive pretty quickly, which is almost hilarious given the false pretenses that kicked off this relationship in the first place. He wants to love her, but is afraid and even disgusted by her attempts to love him back. That’s what essentially brings us to the crux of the movie: He puts her on a pedestal and then he’s frightened to see her standing on it.
Aoyama is so terrified that she wants to be the only thing in his life, even though he basically expects the same from her. This is precisely what Asami is lashing out against when she finally takes the upper hand. As extreme as her torture of him may be, it’s about one thing: control. Intentionally or not, he’s basically been controlling her the entire time. He’s been manipulating her, not coming clean about everything right away, and it’s not anything he’s doing with malicious intent. It’s, unfortunately, something that just seems ingrained in men and that is the sort of thing that a character like Asami is designed to subvert.
The torture scenes, from Asami’s perspective, stem from a need for control. Throughout the narrative, she is basically at Aoyama’s mercy. He is the one driving the story forward. He is the one responsible for the plot setup, he has control over the environment in which they first meet, and she can basically only act at his whim and wait for him to decide when they’re going to see each other again. One of the best moments of the film is a single unsettling shot of Asami sitting motionless by the phone, waiting for him to call. The screwed up thing is that this is something that is simultaneously repulsive and attractive to men. There’s an intense desire to be desired, but not to be desired intensely.
It’s easy to read Aoyama’s behavior as being initially unsettled by the fact that she might love him back. For him, from the opening of the film, Audition has never really been a love story. For its male protagonist, it’s about regaining a sense of structure. He lost a wife and goes searching for another because he can’t fill that role on his own.
Asami’s never had the upper hand in any of their interactions until the film hits its final act. The shift in power becomes a shift in perspective. We get to know more about Asami, get to see how intensely passionate she actually can be, not only because she’s torturing Aoyama but because she is controlling the conversation for the first time in the entire film. By the time he realizes how much he doesn’t want this, it doesn’t matter. It’s appropriately no longer about what he wants. Not the delicate flower he imagined her to be, Asami is a broken and flawed person – and a person was never what Aoyama was interested in in the context of this narrative.
Yes, the torture is extreme and her vengeance for simply being ignored and possibly unwanted might seem completely unjust in a real-world setting, but in the heightened landscape of Audition it makes absurdly simple sense: he wanted to walk away, so she took his fucking foot.
The brilliance of Audition lies in its approach to relationships as things that are often created with ulterior motives. People want different things from one another, for different reasons. It reveals the simple truth that a man can court a woman and even enter into a relationship without ever actually seeing her. He sees what he wants to see because he’s writing a narrative in his head. We all do this, to some degree. We fantasize about the right thing to say, about the first kiss, and the more we do that, the more we substitute the fantasized girl for the real one.
Asami serves as a wake-up call to a side of maleness that isn’t even frequently addressed. She is the meek and quiet girl that Aoyama finds himself so attracted to in the first place and she is also a self-actualized, deeply flawed individual who will do anything not to be left alone again. The women in most boy-meets-girl stories put up with a staggering amount of idiocy because those films are designed with the mindset that the boyfriend’s actions are quirky and cute. Audition is an aggressive counterpoint to that, and as such it and its heroine/antagonist carve out an important corner for themselves in the landscape of “romantic” cinema.