“You are sick!”: Audition at 25 – Takashi Miike on his deranged duet of discomfort

Takashi Miike and his terrifying star Eihi Shiina look back on the shocked reactions to their J-horror landmark Audition, a “love letter” which caused walkouts when it premiered 25 years ago.

Audition (1999)

From the moment Takashi Miike’s Audition premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival in late 1999, it caused shockwaves in the horror genre. Europeans got their first look at it at Rotterdam in 2000, and mass walkouts were reported. Even quarter of a century on it’s lost none of its capacity to unsettle. It’s the definition of a ‘discomfort movie’ – a film whose squirm-inducing provocations linger long after the movie ends.

By the late 90s, Hollywood horror was dominated by the tricksy, teen meta-horror films that followed in the wake of Scream (1996). Audition arrived as a part of a wave of corrective chillers from Japan, following on the heels of movies like Cure (1997) and Ring (1998) in feeding on subliminal fears and unnerving the audience through psychological themes and tension applied like a thumbscrew.

With films such as Ichi the Killer (2001) and One Missed Call (2003), Miike became a leading figure in this J-horror boom, but it was Audition that first won him international recognition.

Adapted from a cult 1997 novel by Ryu Murakami, the film begins with video producer Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) searching for a new wife, seven years after losing his wife to cancer. His teenage son tells him he is looking “dispirited” and that he should remarry. Consequently, his friend suggests that they should stage an audition for a fake movie to meet a potential new partner. Reluctantly, Aoyama agrees.

Audition (1999)

When Aoyoma holds the mock audition, he’s instantly drawn to the beauty of ex-ballerina Asami Yamazaki. The young woman is exactly what Aoyama says he desires in a woman: “beautiful, classy and obedient”.

This slow beginning, with its domestic setting and theme of a widower looking to remarry, might almost be something out of a Yasujiro Ozu drama. There’s no indication that it will develop into anything sinister. Miike’s mind games have begun. “The audience takes their seats with an idea about the film already in their heads,’” says Miike. “However, the actual situation seems different when the screening starts. ‘Oh? It’s not horror at all!’ Many movies are clearly horror from the first cut.”

In this way, Audition lulls viewers into a false sense of security. It’s like going up a rollercoaster while blindfolded: you know it’s going to drop at some point, but you are completely powerless and at the mercy of the ride. “The movie continues for about 50 minutes, betraying the delusions and expectations of the audience,” says Miike. “They begin to regret coming to see this movie because it’s not what they expected. In other words, you will be alert in your heart. You should not miss that moment as the story begins to develop.”

After intentionally making the first half of the movie as slow-moving as possible, Audition suddenly turns on the burners to become an intense and unpredictable ordeal. “In the second half, the scenes are seamlessly connected, making it appear almost like one scene,” says Miike. “It makes the audience unable to predict events and creates anxiety about where they will be led. All that’s certain is the pain from being pricked with a needle; the pain of leg amputation.”

As viewers, we are forced to enter an uncomfortable realm as we bear witness to the abuse and childhood trauma that Asami experienced as a young girl. Following her parent’s divorce, she had to live with her uncle at the age of seven. Here, she was exposed to abuse as she was repeatedly pushed down stairs and forced into cold baths. She was also abused by her stepfather, who would force her to perform ballet for him for his apparent sexual gratification. If she stopped dancing, he would burn her inner thighs with red hot sticks.

This incredibly uncomfortable depiction of child abuse prompts audience sympathy with what Asami experienced, as we see the effects of her unresolved trauma. Audition doesn’t deal in a ‘good vs evil’ dichotomy: its antagonist is herself a victim, who is unable to trust the intentions of men.

“Asami is a sad woman hungry for love,” says Eihi Shiina, who plays Asami. “I have known people who seek refuge from past traumas and who are looking for someone to love, but I think she has grown up without ever being able to hide her loneliness.” 

Audition (1999)

As we’re introduced to Asami, it seems impossible that she could be capable of sadistic acts – Shiina portrays her as incredibly introverted and unassuming. Yet the movie is building to a horrific climax as Asami drugs and tortures Aoyama in his living room. She inserts needles into his stomach and under his eyeballs before amputating one of his legs. Miike and Shiina improvised part of this infamous scene, including the chilling “Kiri-Kiri-Kiri” line.

Before Audition, Shiina was a model with only one film credit to her name, Isao Yukisada’s Open House (1998). Yet despite her lack of experience, Miike had immense confidence in her and gave her the freedom to interpret the role of Asami how she wanted. He was thrilled with the results, especially during this climactic scene with the “happy smile that Shiina shows when Asami cuts Aoyama’s legs with a wire saw”.

Miike originally planned to finish the movie as the torture scene was about to begin, but was convinced to complete his vision and see it through to the end. “I thought pain was something the couple could share together,” he says. “In other words, their love was fulfilled. This is how I remember the movie should end. No matter how much it hurts, the next morning will turn out to be surprisingly boring.”

These comments get to the heart of Miike’s perverse interpretation of Murakami’s novel. “It’s not a horror movie,” he adds, “but a love letter.”

Audition (1999)

Of the film’s infamous reactions at festival screenings, he says that the response was not fear, but instead comments like “I can’t believe it” and “This sort of film should never be made!”

“I still remember the expression of the elderly lady who went out to find me in the darkness of the movie theatre when I was watching with a customer at a film festival and said, ‘You are sick!’ To be honest, I was more scared of her expression than my movie.” 

“And I can’t forget the smile of a young man in the audience (with tattoos) who was watching and gave me a thumbs-up saying ‘You did well’. There is no doubt that the difference between these two [responses] gives me energy.”

Audition screens in July as part of the Discomfort Movies season at BFI Southbank.

Further reading