Few filmmakers elicit visceral responses like director Takashi Miike. Despite an extraordinarily long list of films spanning multiple genres, his horror features stand out. They punch through the skull scarring the minds of every audience. Movies such as Imprint, Ichi the Killer, and Visitor Q are haunting, at times, surreal horror which twists a knife in the gut, if not the eye, of any viewer. That’s why his 1999 film Audition is the worst first date movie possible.
I made that mistake several years ago. Recalling the occasion is a tale of dark humor as well as a testament to Miike’s singular skill. Especially since the calamitous error of watching Audition became a horror experience in and of itself.
The whole nightmare started almost formulaically. Meeting an attractive young woman in a bar we began discussing a mutual interest in films, particularly horror movies. She mentioned being aware of a bizarre Japanese feature, yet despite knowing certain fragmentary scenes, she didn’t know the title. Filling in the gaps on the mysterious movie I said, “It’s called Audition.”
She said she never saw it, only heard about it, and seeing an opportunity I informed her I owned a copy of the film but had yet to watch it. This lie inspired her to invite me over for a viewing the following night. The internet was in the early days of its evolution, so no help there, I spent the next day frantically searching video shops for a copy. Finding the film at the last minute, I flew across town to her place, and together we fell into the punji stick pit that is watching Audition on a first date.
The story follows widower Shigeharu Aoyama. Reluctantly getting back into romantic pursuits, he takes the advice of his film producer friend, Yasuhisa Yoshikawa. Together they stage a mock audition allowing Aoyama to screen potential love interests. Among the many young ladies who arrive is Asami Yamazaki. Enamored by the enchanting Asami, Aoyama chooses her. However, it isn’t long before the mysterious young woman hints at a darker side. Then the movie goes off the rails in a way only Takashi Miike can orchestrate, cementing Audition as the worst first date movie possible.
Granted, the film is based on a novel by Ryū Murakami, however, Miike elevates the source material. Instead of penning dimension, the author plows through portions speeding to the gruesome finale. The film, however, takes its time building what borders on an ethereal dreamlike atmosphere. Robin Wood wrote how Miike “proceeds systematically to undermine our sense of security, at first subtly and ambiguously, then gradually increasing our uncertainty.”
Witnessing the film unfold, especially as a sinister atmosphere creeps in, is like stumbling inadvertently towards doom. Miike makes falling in love seem like falling towards concrete, a realization reached only as one swan dives towards the pavement. Watching Audition, it gets hard not to cast a side eye at the person with you. A cancerous wonder slowly growing, unsure if a malevolent presence is snuggled up beside you on the couch.
Making matters worse are a variety of notorious scenes in the film. Like any Miike horror masterpiece, though the movie builds to these moments, they always arrive out of nowhere. The equivalent of being punched in the dark, regardless of whatever symbolism can be wrung from them later, the idea anyone predicts what occurs is beyond probability. Even fans aware that such scenes will arrive can’t guess the details of the unsettling spectacle about to pounce. To prove the point, it’s necessary to venture into spoiler territory.
There’s a harmless quality to the movie at first. It doesn’t open with a gory kill like a slasher flick might. In fact, if one went in with no idea this belonged to the J-horror subgenre, it might seem like an odd romance flick. Then a man comes crawling out of a large burlap sack. His tongue missing. Fingers and feet amputated; he struggles across the floor as Asami vomits into a dog bowl. She sets down the dripping dish, and the sack man gratefully slurps up this regurgitated meal, while Asami lovingly pets him like a dog.
Whatever, shall we say, physical intimacy may’ve been brewing during the date dies at that moment. It doesn’t help if, as in my experience, there’s a cat in the other room who chooses that moment to paw at the door. Regardless, the sack man scene never fails to disturb an audience. Though that said, despite providing proof of Audition as the worst first date movie, it is a brilliant scene.
In the context of the film, it’s a powerful revelation of how twisted Asami is behind her demure veil. During a date, it stirs speculative concerns about the future. It’s not even necessarily a matter of worrying one is about to start dating an Asami of some sort, so much as the movie inspires consideration of all the unknowns in a relationship. Not simply with a new partner but regarding the recognition of our own uglier elements which will have to come to light at some point.
Furthermore, as with all of Miike’s best horror, there’s a disturbing believability to events. Even the most outlandish feel possible though they defy decency and sanity. After all, insane grotesquery, whether in image or action, isn’t necessarily beyond the bounds of plausibility. More importantly, the emotions they stoke are markedly palatable. To make matters worse, even at its most extreme, there’s a relatable element to any pain on display sparking at least a subconscious understanding and connection to what’s happening.
Consider the finale. Again, spoiler warning. Though Aoyama falls in love, his romantic interest in Asami ultimately results in her sawing off his foot and painfully sticking long pins into him. If that felt like an abrupt turn, you’re not alone. However, as Asami inserts acupuncture needles into Aoyama’s eyes, it’s hard not to flinch in sympathetic recollection of a poke, or grit flying into one’s gazer. That relatability intensifies the scene in a markedly unsettling way.
One might think that’s for the best. Horror films have long assisted in what’s known as the misattribution of arousal. This is a relatively simple psychological concept. Dangerous situations stimulate arousal and can result in individuals relabeling that arousal as attraction to another person. In other words, stimulated or aroused by a horror movie, one perceives their date as more attractive. Audition flips this process on its head since it essentially inspires a wariness of attraction. Consequently, the more attracted you become to the person you’re with, the more unnerved you become.
There are several moments throughout the feature where friends of Aoyama try to point out something sinister about Asami. Though his friends sense red flags fluttering around her, Aoyama is blind to any hints. More than once someone suggests his attraction is making him oblivious, and that can’t help stirring similar concerns during a first watch.
This is because the film, like all great horror, twists the perception of something that used to seem nonthreatening. For example, the way A Nightmare on Elm Street makes going to sleep unsettling. The horrors on display in Audition seed similar unease, and while Jason Vorhees is gone when the screen goes dark, the dark idea personified by Asami lingers.
Furthermore, the movie’s exploration of various subjects uproots any romantic ideas then salts the earth. Themes intensified thanks to humanizing portrayals of the main characters by Eihi Shiina and Ryo Ishibashi. Child abuse, misogyny, and guilt afflict any viewer capable of human emotion. In fact, a lack of reaction by one’s date could be seen as a warning sign. Implications abound in any reaction to a film but especially to the extremes seen in a Miike movie.
Knowing something is horror, that’s to say fiction, isn’t necessarily a shield against its evocative qualities. Great stories, especially when told well, stoke fires illuminating thoughts and feelings. Through Audition, Miike brings to light aspects of romance most prefer not to see. There’s the way attraction can be blinding, that the quest for love may involve deception, and that people are inherently flawed to some degree. Watching this movie rips away any rose-colored lenses and reminds that dating, whatever the desired outcome, is a matter of human interaction fraught with consequences most ignore until they arrive. While those may not always result in torturous foot amputation, they can still be quite painful.
Audition makes an audience reflect on that pain. It is, in many ways, a tragedy as well as a horror story. As such, it sours any blossoming romance. Oddly enough, what makes it excellent as a horror film is exactly what makes it the worst for a first date.
That isn’t to say on some subsequent rendezvous it might not be perfect. My date and I definitely talked about it for hours trying to exorcise the feelings it infected us with, but we also spent the rest of the evening physically and emotionally at a distance convinced the other might be a serial killer. I can only speak for myself, but that’s not the best way to be perceived by the end of a first date.