Judge Adam Arseneau is terrified of piano wire.
Our review of Audition: 2-Disc Collector's Edition, published October 16th, 2009, is also available.
"Kiri, kiri, kiri, kiri…"
Audition, a film by Japanese auteur/resident psychopath Takashi Miike, may be the most unsettling movie ever filmed. Not the scariest, or the most bloody, or most dramatic, but you would be hard-pressed to find a film that can mess you up like Audition can.
Now on Blu-Ray for its tenth anniversary, Audition: Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) sets out to become the definitive North American release of this Japanese cult classic.
Facts of the Case
Middle-aged widower Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi, Suicide Club) is urged by his friends and his teenage son to get out and start dating again. To help him meet women, a film producer friend simulates a movie audition for a leading lady—in actuality, interviewing for a prospective mate for Aoyama. After auditioning thirty ladies, he falls hopelessly for a beautiful ex-ballerina named Asami (Eihi Shiina), who is as beautiful as she is enigmatic.
As Aoyama begins to court her, their relationship slowly, inexorably, horribly veers from quiet romance to psychotic nightmare—and the less said about this, the better.
Trust me on this.
If you have never seen Audition, do not read this review. In fact, do not read any review of this film. Do not discuss it with anyone who has seen it. Go out, get a copy, and watch it. Roll the dice. Live dangerously. The film is going to be a sledgehammer into your groin either way. You might think foreknowledge of its twist will soften the blow, but it is only like putting a decorative doily on the sledgehammer before it crushes your testicles.
A spiraling nightmare of repression and sexuality,Audition is a devilishly challenging film to examine, like trying to stick one's head into a tiger to win a bet. Nothing about the film is safe or accessible; it only offers deception and the illusion of safety, luring audiences in with a tame and endearing tale of a middle-aged man looking for love. By the time audiences see the metal jaws, the trap has already been sprung. Visceral and brutal, Audition is a seriously deranged film made by a director who pushes envelopes as effortlessly as the rest of us breathe oxygen. Takashi Miike was virtually unknown outside (and inside) of Japan ten years ago. Along comes Audition, and everything changes.
The deeper one explores Audition as a thematic work, the more unsettling the subject becomes. On the surface, this is a horror film that would make Hitchcock squirm, with a finale that lives on in the scar tissue-filled psyche of all unfortunate enough to watch it. Go digging, and the film takes on profound commentary on the state of relationships, of loneliness, of the definition of happiness. Aoyama is hapless and bumbling the ways of love, and his attempts to find a mate—however innocent at first—embrace his friend Yoshikawa's pervasive misogyny and jaded cynicism about love. He shops for a girl the way people flip through channels on television, looking for something to watch, cherry picking perfection from the ranks of the lonely and desperate. When he finds the perfect girl, she is everything he could ever want, so much so that he alarms the cynic in his friend, who warns him to slow down. Aoyama cannot, and things go downhill so, so fast; impossibly so.
Gender roles are at the forefront of the film, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is the screaming understatement of the year to say that Asami has some secrets, but so does Aoyama. He is looking for love, and she is looking for something that might approximate it, if you were a lunatic. Neither is entirely honest from the start about who they are, or what they truly want from the other. As their relationship continues, Asami reveals less and less, while Aoyama begins to suspect more and more. When she vanishes unexpectedly, Aoyama struggles to locate her, realizing with growing distress that he knows practically nothing about the woman who has stolen his heart. Both have secrets, both have an inability to appreciate or interact with the other honestly. The film slides towards its horrifying conclusion like tectonic plates, unstoppable and insurmountable, and yet, we agonize over easily this nightmare could have been avoided by way of some simple, genuine honesty.
Critics and proponents of Audition have found ways to argue the film from disparate perspectives: sadistic and masochistic, feminist and misogynistic. Making a distinction either way is beside the point. Audition is a backlash, a furious explosion of animosity, the ultimate relationship breakup film; it's a reversal of gender roles, iconic horror tropes, expectations and rules in both cinema and relationships between men and women. The film in itself is plenty horrific, but the genuine distress and discomfort of audiences comes in the profundity of how wrong events play out between two lost souls in desperate need to make a connection, in the slow decline into imagery and dreamlike hallucinations of Aoyama as his world slowly descends into madness. The violence in Audition is certainly horrifying, but violence in of itself does not a scary film make—a subtle nuance that many North American filmmakers have yet to figure out.
Truthfully, there is little more that needs to be said here. This is a film that cannot be dissertated, only experienced. Audition is a terrifying film, viscerally and spiritually; it lingers like a viral infection in your psyche and never really leaves. It just goes dormant. Odds are, anyone seeking out this film in Blu-Ray is a fan, and knows exactly what twisted damage they are signing up for. After all, anyone who is new to the film no doubt took my advice, stopped reading, and went to watch Audition, right? Be sure and bring a date. A first date, even!
From a technical perspective, Audition is a perplexing title to have released on Blu-Ray. Director Takashi Miike is not one known for his cinematography or the quality of his productions in terms of fidelity; he shoots fast, hard and with little fanfare or frills. A 1080p transfer taken from the inter-negative, the source material itself is stretched to the limits here. By modern standards, the transfer is flat and unappealing, with noticeable grain, print damage, and muted color palates. If you compare it to the old Chimera release, the Blu-Ray is definitely an improvement in every measurable aspect, but this Shout! Factory release does not even come close to meeting our standards of what audiences will expect. All one can say about it is that Audition: Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) is as good as this film is ever going to look, take it or leave it.
Audio looks nice on paper, with both Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio included, but end up underwhelming the same as the video. Both are virtually identical, but the source material simply is too weak to fill out the high definition codecs. Tones are tinny and muddled, dialogue often sounds muddled, and environmental noises fail to place in the sonic space. Rear channels are virtually unused, along with the subwoofer. A stereo track is also included, which ironically sounds nicer on my system. Go figure. The English subtitles, for some reason, cannot be removed during the film. They are not hard coded per se, but they remain stubbornly in place. This would be problematic in most situations, but less an issue here; all three audio tracks are Japanese, and English is the only available subtitle language, so your choice is moot anyway.
Presented in a two-disc set, Audition: Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) splits its extras across both. The first disc is the Blu-Ray, containing the feature film, with a new video introduction by Miike sitting, audition-style and humble, and actress Eihi Shiina right at the start. More importantly to fans, it also contains a brand-new audio commentary track from May 2009 with director Takashi Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (which when activated replaces the stubborn English subtitles with a translated output of their Japanese commentary). This feature alone should be worth the price of DVD admission for the hardcore Miike fans out there.
The second disc (a standard-definition DVD) contains ninety minutes of interviews with cast members Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina, Renji Ishibashi, and Ren Osugi, as well as the obligatory international trailers. The liner notes include a booklet essay by venerable Japanese film scholar and Miike author Tom Mes. It is a shame that the second disc is not Blu-Ray and high-definition; we get cheated out in this regard something fierce. Still, in terms of quality, it's hard to knock the content. It definitely trumps all other North American releases of the film in this department.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
An argument could be made that putting the climax of this film—already one of the most disturbing and unsettling moments in cinematic history—into the high fidelity of Blu-Ray is just plain mean. There are just some things just made worse in high definition.
Like "kiri, kiri, kiri, kiri"…Oh, god, make it stop.
Far and away the definitive North American version of this film—but not quite technically strong enough to warrant a double-dip in of itself—Audition: Collector's Edition (Blu-Ray) is out there, available there for those brave enough to want a high-definition presentation of a truly unsettling and profoundly disturbing film in their collection. I know I'll be keeping it.
Not guilty. A sucker-punch masterpiece of cult horror.
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