Aoyama, a middle-aged single dad whose wife is seven years buried, begins to worry about the loneliness to which he'll be subject when his son moves out of the house. Aided by a producer buddy, Aoyama holds auditions for the female lead in a movie that will never be produced, evaluating the women who show up as not actresses but potential wives. He's drawn to Asami, a fragile-looking 24-year-old with an unverifiable background and an oddly flat affect. Refusing to heed the various warnings that she spells trouble, Aoyama takes Asami out on a few dates where she reveals her abuse-filled childhood. When she later disappears, Aoyama's search for her takes him to a pedophilic ballet studio owner with no feet and a boarded-up bar where, investigating a murder, police once discovered more body parts than bodies missing them.
Meanwhile, a suspicious Asami breaks into Aoyama's house. Discovering a photo of his dead wife, she flies into a rage of jealousy, puts a paralyzing agent into his drink and hides. By the time Aoyama's motionless on the floor, Asami's got her bag of needles and piano wire primed, and she's ready to perform the world's worst acupuncture session on what she assumes is yet another heartless love-'em-and-leave-'em film industry playa.
Audition is a horror movie, but it's better described as a member of a very specific subgenre of horror: torture porn. That's the fans' term, not mine, though the name pretty much says it all. It's a somewhat illustrious cinematic tradition, at least within the horror context, going at least as far back as Hideshi Hino's 1985 The Flower of Flesh and Blood, which once spooked a coked-out Charlie Sheen a party so much that he called the cops. (I don't mean to imply that it's just a Japanese thing, either; Australia, for instance, gave us Wolf Creek not long ago, in which the torturer is a sort of amoral Mick Dundee.)
I'm not a big horror guy and certainly not a big horror subgenre guy, but these seem to be the prime directives of torture porn (TP): first, include as much gore as possible. Second — and this truly is secondary to the first directive — make the over-the-top gore look as real as possible, so it's a believable, visceral experience for the audience. Third, think up as many creative, unusual ways as possible to present that gore. If you can do all three better than the last guy, you win. If any genre is amenable to quantitative measurement, this is it.
So in a forum as driven to push the envelope as TP, I'm not sure how high Miike's nearly decade-old Audition ranks anymore. Its tendency to cause audience faintings and walkouts drew a fair bit of press in 1999, but after watching the movie, I can't imagine doing either. Maybe I'm just one jaded, desensitized S.O.B., but the experience reminded me being twelve and looking over a friend's collection of 1960s issues of Playboy, all of which his grandpa sent him: "This is supposed to get a reaction out of me?"
But even though it made the likes of Rob Zombie and John Landis turn away in shock and revulsion, it seems pretty clear to me that the film is crossover TP, retaining conventions of its breed but doing so in a form that brings it closer to the mainstream. Whereas The Flower makes with the torture just about from the get-go, Audition packs it all in right at the end, which allows for a horror technique that, unlike most horror techniques, I find effective: the slow build. (See The Shining for a perfect example of the slow build in action.) If you were to watch the movie knowing nothing about it, you'd believe it was a romantic comedy all the way through the first act: lonely pop, precocious son, goofy friend, zany scheme — it's all there. In the second, you'd start thinking that it was maybe more of a psychological thriller. In the third, it seems to shape up as a regular Scary Movie and then, bam, TP until the credits roll. Bold move.
I've been going back and forth about whether I like that Audition was shot on crappy video instead of film. Though the producers may have been forced to use it for budgetary reasons, the video actually lends an effective something's-not-right air to the proceedings, even when still in the rom-com stage. You know that what you're watching shouldn't look like a twenty-year-old deep-cable soap opera, but you're not quite sure why. And of course the chintzy means of production tie the movie back to its sleazy underground TP heritage; time was, you couldn't watch yourself a TP without it being some grainy, wobbly tenth-generation VHS dub.
I'm going on here like I'm some kind of knowledgable TP fan, maybe an enthusiastic casual follower, but I'm not; I find the stuff fairly unappealing, not for the obvious gross-out reasons — I can't really suspend disbelief in the cinema anymore, so they're obviated — but because extended torture scenes, much like extended fight scenes, extended chase scenes and extended musical numbers, are dull. They hit one note and have nowhere to go but to hit it louder and louder until you press fast forward, which I would do if pressing fast forward was not against my cultural moral code. (I don't do walkouts, either.) It doesn't help that the characters involved in the torture are so poorly developed that the action is impossible to invest in; even Aoyama is a cipher, though by TP standards he's basically Hamlet.
Thematically, the movie isn't much richer, hinging as it does on the "abused child perpetuates the horror" trope, which, on the hierarchy of narrative originality, ranks right there with "hotshot maverick and by-the-book veteran learn to cooperate". It's somewhat intruguing that the child is a girl and, rather than become a stripper — as would be the case in our own universe — she becomes a torturer, and there are a handful of impressive filmmaking choices that pop up now and again, but the unavoidable conclusion is that, while Audition is decent in a handful of ways, it's not particularly, y'know, good. But it did manage to smuggle a piece of genuine TP into a wide audience by wrapping it in an otherwise garden-variety thriller, so that's a fun stunt.