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Casting from which ‘Audition’?

by Steve Finbow

Ten years after the release of Takashi Miike’s film of the novel, Ryu Murakami’s “Audition (Odishon)” has finally been translated into English. Aoyama, a fortysomething documentary maker, decides it is about time he remarried. His beautiful, talented and understanding wife Ryoko has been dead for seven years, a viral cancer cutting short her life. His teenage son Shige agrees that his father needs someone else in his life. Aoyama elicits the help of his advertising executive friend Yoshikawa to find a would-be bride. The two men plan to hold auditions for a potential (phantom) film.

AUDITION by Ryu Murakami, Bloomsbury, 2009, 200 pp., £10 (cloth)

Four thousand applicants send in a photo, a resume and a short essay about themselves. A young woman whose essay he finds intriguing and whose photo mesmerizes him captivates Aoyama. On the day of the auditions, Aoyama perfunctorily assesses the applicants, nervously awaiting the appearance of the beguiling Asami Yamasaki.

What Miike’s film doesn’t tell you about Aoyama is that he is a lover of jazz and classical music, that his perfect partner should have a background in music or ballet. Nor does the film include the radio show used to promote the audition — a sort of “American Idol” for would-be actors. It also conflates certain characters, completely changing the personal interaction between a nervous and reticent Aoyama in the novel and a somewhat sleazy and predatorial Aoyama in the film.

Of course, films cannot always stay true to a literary narrative, but “Audition” the film takes cinematic liberties with “Audition” the novel for no apparent reason other than to fix “Audition” the film firmly in the postmodern and highly profitable genre of J-Horror. Miike’s direction overlays a surrealist, almost Freudian gloss on what is in the novel a straightforward love story that snowballs into a tale of terror, lust, and madness.

If “Audition” the novel includes thoughts on postwar Japan, consumerism, the changing face of Japanese youth culture and the sex industry, while narrating a story of personal history, familial responsibility, loneliness and the various shadings of love, then “Audition” the movie presents us with men tied in bags, amputated tongues and fingers, and confusion as to who is doing what to whom.

In the novel, Aoyama is a straightforward guy who is lonely and wants a partner, eschewing the traditional method of arranged marriages, his method of finding a partner — although a subterfuge — is a result of the paradoxical impossibility of meeting people in modern-day megalopolises.

In the film, Aoyama is portrayed as a schizoid personality, his desire for Yamasaki bordering on the psychotic. The tension built up in the novel, through its mainly linear narrative, is dissipated in the film by the insistence on flashbacks, the director using both internal analepsis (previous points in the narrative) and external analepsis (scenes before the narrative begins).

The horror scenes are well done and there’s enough gore to satisfy most J-Horror fans; yet the film (No. 11 of Bravo TV’s all-time scariest movies) does not have the psychological impact of the novel. Key scenes are omitted — the torture and killing of Aoyama’s pet dog and his attempt to climb stairs to escape his torturer after being drugged and having a foot amputated (there’s a Ph.D. to be written on Oedipal urges, etc.).

Most important, in the movie, Yamasaki is portrayed (however eerily and uncannily by the actress Eihi Shiina) more as a yokai, yurei or bakemono (ghostlike), rather than as the troubled victim of incest, abuse and torture that she happens to be. As separate entities, “Audition” the film and “Audition” the novel have a lot going for them, but the cinematic rendition of the novel is nowhere near as interesting.