angethology reviews Audition book by Ryu Murakami and film (1999) by Takashi Miike

Audition – Review of Ryū Murakami’s book and Takashi Miike’s film adaptation

If there’s one writer who doesn’t pull punches, it’s Ryū Murakami. His shuddering novel Audition (translated into English by Ralph McCartney) is compressed into just above 200 pages, yet it leaves you reeling and confounded in the best way possible. Later adapted for the big screen in 1999 with Takashi Miike as the director, the film leaves an equally lasting impression, but with contrasting techniques.

Book review:

Audition has earned a certain kind of reputation. Before delving into this book, I thought that it would center gratuitous gore with a myriad of action scenes. Surprisingly, it has a slow build-up that examines the minutiae of people going through grief, trauma, and isolation.

It starts with Aoyama, a successful businessman and middle-aged father who lost his wife to cancer. His son Shigehiko, years later urges him to find a new wife. Yoshikawa, his partner in the film industry, comes up with an idea to find him a new wife: by setting up auditions. The audition is essentially a front to attract the most beautiful, talented, and obedient women, and Aoyama’s intention is to date at least a few of them until he finds a perfect match.

Then Aoyama finds a picture of Asami, along with her essay and resume submitted for her audition. Immediately entranced by her, he falls under her spell further when he meets her in real life. He miraculously finds the most immaculate woman who checks all of his boxes; a dream come true.

I think Murakami’s way of portraying Aoyama is very fascinating. We’ve heard of the typical sleazy managers and producers in the entertainment industry, and from his manners, sensitivity, and demeanor alone, Aoyama appears to be nothing like that. However, still, it’s clear that he holds unrealistic and outdated ideals which he materializes by abusing his position of power, and he even comments on the deterioration of modern women in Japan. Even the seemingly “good men,” unconsciously manipulates vulnerable women.

Regardless of whether he’s considered an angel or the devil’s pawn, women in the entertainment industry often act according to what’s expected of them, and the same goes for Asami, at first — until she snaps. Aoyama, however, is completely blinded by his adoration and yearning for the perfect wife, unwilling to see her for who she actually is. Or rather, unwilling to get to know her on a more profound level:

“She’s like smoke: you think you’re seeing her clearly enough, but when you reach for here there’s nothing there.

When Asami eventually unveils the trauma and abuse she endured as a child, Aoyama doesn’t process this in a way that highlights her as a human being with diverse experiences, and how that might have shaped her as an adult.

Instead, he hyper-focuses on her resolve and determination, almost glorifying what she went through so that it doesn’t disrupt his picturesque sight of her. Even her essay wherein she states that giving up ballet after an injury “feels like death,” lures him in. Asami’s character is evidently laid out through Aoyama’s perception, and his tendency to put her on a pedestal is a stark contrast to how other people intuit her persona:

“I can’t read her exactly, but I can tell you she’s either a saint or a monster. Maybe both extremes at once, but not somewhere in between.”

Dissonance is a feature that is a part of everyone in one way or another, and refusing to look that in the eye—and just revolve a certain identity around yourself is one way to push someone else over the edge. The last act is a disturbing gore fest, and Ryū Murakami and Ralph McCarthy sure know how to build up a detailed and intriguing backstory with sickening tension.

Despite the fairly straightforward writing style, this story is riddled with metaphors and cultural commentary about how we navigate love, infatuation, and the inclination to love the concept of something or someone without acknowledging their raw edges. From the atmosphere to the minuscule gestures the characters have, the details never feel redundant.

This novel is well-written and viscerally violent, and not just literally. When I finished this book I thought the ending was more or less unambiguous, but the motive behind it seems more intricate when you reflect on Asami’s true reasoning behind her actions, and how Aoyama’s delusions seem to be interminable.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film review:

There are some differences in the film adaptation that I think are well-suited for the cinema experience, some were hazier and others were clearer. Director Takashi Miike is usually known for his bloody, gut-wrenching, and sometimes over-the-top torture scenes, but what makes Audition particularly stand out is its psychological and sinister ambience that leads up to the last act.

Asami’s (Eihi Shiina) motive was explicitly made to the audience unlike the book, but what really amazed me was the sequence of flashbacks in the last forty minutes in relation to Asami’s past, personality, and how Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) actually views or glamorizes her. This is where things get slightly more complex in how she actually is as a person and which reality is the “truth.” The exposition about her past makes much more sense when revealed this way in the film format.

It’s also noteworthy how Aoyama and Asami in the film seem much more one-dimensional initially. In the book, despite Aoyama’s flaws, he is portrayed in a more sympathetic light where he tries to cater to Asami’s needs as much as he can (albeit through a myopic and patriarchal lens). In the film, however, Aoyama seems even more superficial, and there is not even the slightest spark of chemistry between him and Asami.

Likewise, Asami appears to be a simple ingénue, and Eihi Shiina particularly did a stunning job in portraying Asami as ethereal yet chilling as the film progresses. I think this portrayal speaks to the delusions of Aoyama, where he thinks he is being genuine and kind to the woman of his dreams, when he isn’t. The film adaptation hinges on the objective reality of what the characters are like to the audience, whereas the book mainly relies on Aoyama’s perception of events.

The film follows the book’s gruesome last chapter, and we can see how Asami’s longing for truly being seen for who she is, keeps being shattered by men who only see her as a sex object or a slave. Asami does not accept this, and all the feelings she repressed from the violence enacted on her are unleashed. She’s no longer the subservient and demure girl with a tragic past; she’s a femme fatale who aims to apathetically and strategically torture men who wrong her. Here, we can see the reverse of gender roles at play, where this time, it seems that Aoyama is at the mercy of Asami, and the turn of events along with the cinematography leans into that subgenre of J-Horror of women shrouded by revenge.

With the slight departure from some of the book’s nuances, Takashi Miike’s interpretation of the book is undoubtedly evocative and entertaining, and that ending specifically will surely blow anyone’s socks off. Or well … feet.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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