In his appreciation, entitled ‘Damaged Romance’, – included in the extras for its new DVD and Blu-ray release by ARROW FILMS – Japanese cinema historian Tony Rayns recounts an incident which happened following a screening of Audition (1999) at an international film festival. A female member of the audience accosted its director Takashi Miike on her way out, to tell him how disgusted she was at it and that he was indeed a sick man. A reaction to which, apparently, Miike took great delight. Having watched the film, one cannot help but feel that the woman may have had a point. Some films such as war epics or dramas – whether you agree with them or not – by the very nature of their storylines, require some degree of violence in order to achieve or retain realism. The main aim of others however – including so called ‘horror’ films like Audition, as can clearly be seen by its director’s reaction to the female viewer’s complaint – seems to be to cause upset by pushing the boundaries of acceptable entertainment to their limit.

After many years mourning the death of his wife, widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is persuaded by his son to marry again. Along with the help of a friend, Shigeharu sets up an ‘audition’ to look for an actress to star in the new film he is producing: in reality this is simply a screening process for him to meet girls with future wife potential. Unexpectedly however Shigeharu falls big time for one of the girls, called Asami (Eihi Shiina), and they tentatively start dating. It’s not long before Shigeharu finds himself falling in love with Asami. Unfortunately though – just as Shigeharu was not honest with his reasons behind the initial ‘auditions’ – Asami has not told her new boyfriend everything about herself, the truth of which Shigeharu is about to discover with gruesome and devastating results.

Many films through mere dint of reputation (infamous and otherwise), scream out for true aficionados of the art form to watch them. The movies within mainstream cinema which demand this – such as Citizen Kane (1941) – are numerous. Those from the niche genre of horror are just as plentiful, and include the notorious Audition – a film so torturous to watch that it indeed deserves its oft inglorious reputation.

I must admit to having had a ‘forbidden fruit’ relationship with Audition, ever since it was met with equal degrees of praise and derision upon its initial release in 1999: I’ve wanted to experience the film, but have always shied away from the thought of watching its powerful, yet perverted imaginings. The image of its central female character Asami (played with detached relish by Shiina) with long, sleek hair and black rubber butcher’s apron, proffering an elongated hypodermic needle for all to see, has become one of the iconic images of contemporary horror cinema. The film’s notoriety for a degree of unrelenting torture and sadism not often seen, even within the no-holds barred realm of horror cinema, is also well documented.

Truth be told however, like many films which fall within the modern cinematic genre of ‘torture porn’, Audition is not actually that frightening, in the generally accepted meaning of the term: there are few ‘shock’ sequences in the film and, apart from the occasional graphic severance of the odd body part, not much gore or bloodletting. In fact, if you are looking for a horror film in the traditional sense, Audition is probably not the film for you. If, on-the-other-hand, you enjoy unnecessarily drawn out scenes of sustained and perverse torture then you should find enough here to hold your interest. Apart from the odd nasty interlude – told through flashback – introduced to try and give some form of excuse for Asami’s extreme behaviour, a lot of the film’s most disturbing and controversial parts don’t take place until the final twenty minutes or so. Up till then the film, rather ponderously, dwells on the method protagonist Shigeharu uses to set about ensnaring his perspective bride: though he in no way deserves what happens to him in the end, you could none-the-less argue that the initial ‘audition’ which he sets up under false pretences for the sole aim of finding himself a wife, does warrant some form of retribution.

The film, even in its nastier parts, is beautifully shot – one sequence set in a hotel, where Asami and Shigeharu have gone to spend their first weekend away together, which plays out in varying degrees of white, achieves an almost dreamlike quality. This however does little to detract from what is, overall, an exercise in shock for shocks sake: an approach which, though gaining those involved with Audition a degree of instant notoriety, did little for their professional reputations in the longterm.

A special edition of Audition, including a host of brand new and specially commissioned extras, was released on DVD and Blu-ray by ARROW FILMS on the 29th February, 2016.

Director: Takashi Miike
Writers: Ryû Murakami (novel), Daisuke Tengan (screenplay)
Stars: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Tetsu Sawaki, Jun Kunimura
Runtime: 115 mins
Country: Japan

Film Rating: ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

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