"Everybody in Japan is lonely".
Released in 1999 and, as a result, announcing itself as a very late but extremely serious contender for finest horror film of the 1990s, AUDITION is not only a classic slice of contemporary terror but remains arguably the best-known film in director Takashi Miike's considerable canon.
It opens with middle-aged businessman Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) mourning the death of his wife. He's left to bring up their young son alone. Several years later, the teenaged lad - Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) - confesses that he worries about his father, and the life of solitude he's committed himself to since his loss. "You don't look well ... why don't you marry again?" he asks.
Shigeharu is initially dismissive of such a suggestion, but it does set his mind ticking over. When he discusses the matter with old pal Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), the latter - a film producer - suggests they hold auditions for a bogus project and vet women who may be possible dates for Shigeharu. It's a crazy idea (and, in truth, a rather silly conceit), but they end up going along with it anyway.
Come the day of the auditions, only one girl makes on impression on Shigeharu: demure, unassuming Asami (Eihi Shiina). He soon becomes fixated, and takes her on a lunch date soon after.
All seems to go well, though Shigeharu leaves her waiting for a follow-up telephone call when Yasuhisa does some research into her background and discovers her last landlord went missing. Still, being a lonely guy in search of a good old-fashioned wife who will tend to his domestic needs, Shigeharu eventually puts any reservations to the back of his mind and rings Asami.
She's pleased when the 'phone rings. The body in the sack beside her at the time is probably a little less ecstatic...
Yes indeed, this budding relationship is about to turn remarkably sour. Is it Shigeharu's fault, for leaving Asami expectant of his call for so long, and for being astonishingly (unintentionally) sexist in his methods of acquisition and expectancies of a woman's duties? Or has she simply been left deranged by an abusive childhood?
I'd wager that 99.9% of readers know the answer already, such is AUDITION's stature among modern horror cinema. Its place at the top of the pile is justified too: it's a wonderfully intelligent, intense piece.
Beautifully shot and subtly acted from the start, Miike's breakthrough film unwinds in a deliberately slow manner. The first half of the film lulls its viewer into a false sense of security, its familial scenarios skirting between genteel drama and reserved humour. The opening hour is very character-driven, allowing us to really feel empathy for Shigeharu even though his method of vetting his dates is highly dubious. We feel his sense of loss from the start, while the support of his friend and son genuinely do feel like people just want his life to get better for him.
55 minutes in, however, there's that jolting telephone call scene, where we truly start to suspect that Asami is not as shy and retiring as she first made out. The film shifts in tone from this moment onwards. Not wishing to spoil things for newcomers, AUDITION truly pulls the rug from beneath its audience's feet ... and delivers one of the most impressively sustained final acts of sheer terror ever witnessed. All I'll say to the initiated is "kiri ... kiri ... kiri ..."!
Never have mild romcom tropes and the insanity of extreme horror cinema been merged so convincingly. You may sit there waiting for something to happen, initially, but come the end of AUDITION you will most likely be muttering something akin to "holy fucking shit" to yourself.
Miike ladles on the style as events descend into Hellish torment, toying with linear storytelling techniques and introducing hideous flashbacks which will disturb as much as what's happening in the present tense. This ... is classic horror. Even better, it's all served up with a great deal of social commentary: the casual sexism of middle class men; the culture divides between different Japanese generations; the irony of loneliness being such an issue in one of the world's most heavily populated countries ...
Arrow Films Video are releasing AUDITION onto UK blu-ray. The film is presented fully uncut (115 minutes 27 seconds) and in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Given the benefit of a new 2K restoration from original vault elements, this 1080p HD presentation is nothing short of spectacular.
Previously problematic on home video, AUDITION didn't even look great on Shout! Factory's region-locked US blu-ray of a few years back. In fact, it often looked horrid. But here, the visual upgrade is immediately apparent. Colours are so much deeper, truer, than on previous releases; blacks are solid, noise is kept in check, minimal grain is natural and unobtrusive; detail is greatly heightened, especially during darker scenes. This is, far and away, the best AUDITION has ever looked. Watching this presentation - housed on this 50gb disc as a nicely sized MPEG4-AVC file - was an absolute joy.
Japanese audio is given the 5.1 Master DTS-HD treatment and, as you'd expect, is also a spiffing prospect. Optional English subtitles are well-written, typo-free and easily readable at all times.
The disc opens to an animated main menu page which boasts an insanely happy pop song on rotation. Unusually, there is no scene selection option (at least, there wasn't on this screener disc).
Extras begin with an excellent audio commentary track from writer and Japanese film expert Tom Mes. He's an engaging host, speaking enthusiastically about the film's novel origins, its production and even pointing out little clues as to what's going to happen later which Miike litters throughout the film along the way. This makes for a great listen.
Miike also provides a chat track for the film, alongside screenwriter Daisuke Tengan. This is moderated intelligently by film writer Masato Kobayashi and is also highly engrossing. It's spoken in Japanese, with English subtitles provided. Miike of course dominates the track, pointing out the differences between the source novel and his film, as well as informing us of little bits of trivia such as the fact that Japanese films seldom actually entail auditions for their acting roles. Inevitably some of the info is repeated across the two commentaries (Mes, for example, even reads excerpts from the English translation of the novel to highlight the differences between page and screen) but you won't care: AUDITION is a film that thrives on discussion, and you feel enriched for having sat in the company of these scholars and their insights.
A heartbreakingly humble introduction to the film from its director is optional but recommended. Go on, it's only 75 seconds in length.
Miike is also on hand for a new 30-minute HD interview in which he drawls somewhat about how he came to the production, what it was like to work with the actors and his own personal take on the film's concepts. He seems bemused by (a) the fact that Westerners "get" the film, and (b) how he's regarded as a horror filmmaker despite his genre output accounting for only a fraction of his prolific career.
Ryo Ishibashi gets to tell us of his professional odyssey too, from pop star to Japanese actor and even engaging in Hollywood ventures. He's an interesting subject for this archive 16-minute featurette.
Shiina's 20-minute interview explores her transition from modelling to acting, as well as her deep appreciation for working with Miike.
Renji Ishibashi, who enjoys a pivotal later role in AUDITION, has been a regular actor in Miike films for some years. His take on their working relationship is therefore fascinating over the course of 21 enjoyable minutes.
Ren Osugi, who had the thankless task of portraying the body in Asami's bag, is also interviewed over the course of 16 minutes. He admits to being an aimless "slacker" in his youth who simply drifted into acting. And ended up being in one of this generation's best horror films, you lucky git!
The latter four interviews were all produced by Outcast Cinema.
"Damaged Romance" is an all-new 35-minute visual appraisal of the film from historian Tony Rayns. Following a whistle-stop biography of Miike, he offers a solid assessment of AUDITION's themes, successes and enduring influence.
Arrow are kind enough to offer a text caveat prior to showing us the 98-second Japanese trailer for the film, warning us that it contains spoilers. The 76-second International trailer is slightly more subtle but, honestly, if you're new to the film try and go into it as blindly as you can - and thank me later.
A 15-strong stills gallery offers some nice behind-the-scenes photos, and reminds us of the amusing ginger dye Miike wore in his hair during the shoot.
Available in both limited Steelbook packaging, and regular keepcase packaging. The latter sports double-sided reversible cover artwork.
AUDITION has lost none of its power to attract, amuse, disturb and horrify. It's a wonderful achievement, and an enduring testament to Takashi Miike's talent as a filmmaker. Finally getting to see it in a clean, filmic HD restoration is a delight.
A fantastic film, on a stunning disc.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Arrow Video|
|see main review|