Takashi Miike's "Audition" begins like a classic, gentle Yasujiro Ozu parent-and-child drama, but 45 minutes in we get hints that we're in for something rather different. Even then there's no way of knowing that this audacious film, to describe it mildly, will present some of the most horrific images ever seen in a serious work produced for general release. Working from a story by Ryu Murakami, Miike does adhere to the venerable dictum that advises leaving the absolute worst to complete itself in the viewer's imagination--but, be warned, that portion has never been so small.
Miike is such a compelling filmmaker that he makes it hard to turn away from the unspeakable. While he packs a major jolt for horror fans, "Audition" is actually carrying a critique of the lingering subordinate status of women in Asian society to its horrendous, hideous extreme. It also makes the larger point that "nice" people in the unconscious clutch of archaic attitudes make those living in the less privileged and powerful strata of society vulnerable to a living hell.
At age 42, Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is a good-looking, successful businessman who owns a video production company. The death of his beloved wife seven years earlier has drawn him all the closer to his only child, his 16-year-old son, Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki), a bright, well-adjusted youth who one day affectionately encourages his father to remarry before he gets any older.
Aoyama takes his son seriously and, at a loss as to how to find a wife, turns to his far more worldly friend for help. Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) is a sleek movie producer who proposes that they hold an audition for actresses for a film project that they will use as a ploy for Aoyama to meet desirable women.
Not surprisingly, Aoyama is looking for a young but obedient, traditionally minded beauty who has training in one of the arts, because in his view that instills self-discipline.
Aoyama senses he has discovered Ms. Right when he glimpses her from the back, seated while waiting to audition. She is Asami (Eihi Shiina), an exquisite, waif-like creature, modestly dressed in a white suit and matching shoes, who explains that she studied ballet for 12 years but had to give it up at age 18 when she damaged her hips. For someone so determinedly demure, Asami certainly knows how to turn on the charm. Assuring him that she's glad to meet such a sensitive, attentive man, she seemingly accepts Aoyama's explanation that the film project has been canceled.
Asami, however, seems studied in contrast to the spontaneous and natural young women who audition by demonstrating their prowess by twirling a baton, stomping up a storm with a Spanish dance or, in once instance, stripping off a top. Yoshikawa gets a bad vibe from Asami that he cannot quite put his finger on, but Aoyama is having none of it and plunges headlong in his pursuit of her.
For all his suave manner, Yoshikawa is clearly a male chauvinist pig. It never occurs to him or Aoyama that a young woman might, beneath an accommodating surface, be less than thrilled with their bait-and-switch tactics.
Enough said of the plot; flashbacks include gruesome sadistic practices that remorselessly permeate the film. "Audition" is a diabolically adroit piece of filmmaking that goes even further than the films of Italy's excruciatingly macabre Dario Argento.
Unrated. Times guidelines: Suitable only for those accustomed to the most extreme horror pictures.
Ryo Ishibashi...Shigeharu Aoyama
Eihi Shiina...Asami Yamazaki
Tetsu Sawaki...Shigehiko Aoyama
Jun Kunimura...Yasuhisa Yoshikawa
An American Cinematheque/Vitagraph Films release. Director Takashi Miike. Producers Akemi Suyama and Satoshi Hukushima. Executive producer Toyoyuki Yokohama. Screenplay Daisuke Tengan; based on a story by Ryu Murakami. Cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto. Editor Yasushi Shimamura. Music Koji Endo. Production designer Tatsuo Ozeki. In Japanese with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Exclusively at the Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A., (310) 478-6379.