Japanese director Takashi Miike was in Los Angeles for just two days to talk about his controversial film "Audition." One of those days was Sept. 11. Maybe that's why he seemed uncomfortable discussing the graphic violence featured in the movie's climax.
"Many people in many countries talk about the violence" in his films, Miike observes, speaking through an interpreter at Hollywood's Egyptian Theatre. "I don't think violence should be hidden. It's ordinary, happening every day. It is not a special thing."
"Audition" opens at the Nuart on Friday; it's already opened in several other American cities and has earned generally positive reviews, but ones that inevitably include warnings about the film's difficult-to-watch final sequence. A review in the New York Post, for example, calls the movie's finale "an unrelenting barrage of sadism and mutilation."
The unrated "Audition" tells the story of a budding relationship that veers off the romance track into psycho-thriller, ultimately descending into gruesome horror. According to the filmmaker, audience reaction has ranged from praise to disgust, depending on one's familiarity with the ultra-violent genre films Miike has made in recent years and also how one interprets the male-female dynamic he portrays here.
At a London screening, Miike recalls, "Some of the women writers in the audience thought it was a feminist movie." But other women "have left their seats and come up to me pointing and saying, 'You are sick,' then walking out of the theater."
In Japan, the director explains, audiences are not especially sensitive to male-female issues. And he's hoping that "in America, the audience can interpret the film freely and accept it freely--and also criticize it freely."
American Cinematheque director David Schultz, who chose "Audition" for distribution after viewing it at the American Film Market, has high hopes for the film's chances in Los Angeles. "At our Japanese Outlaw Masters series, 'Audition' did more than three times the box office of any other film," Schultz says. "There's a lot of interesting buzz around it. It's a tricky film," he says. "It starts out as one thing and then becomes something else. It makes you wonder where reality begins and where it ends. Or is any of it reality?"
In "Audition", widower Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is cajoled into reentering the dating game by his business partner, who comes up with a unique method of screening romantic prospects: Since the two own a video production company, they hold a series of mock auditions for a female role in a film project. However, there is no project; the women are being checked out as potential partners for Aoyama.
Aoyama is uninterested in the hundreds of women who apply until he meets the shy, beautiful Asami (Eihi Shiina). He gathers up the nerve to ask the young woman out, and their relationship begins tentatively, the mysterious Asami appearing as uncertain about how to proceed as the out-of-practice Aoyama.
The two go away for a weekend and make love, but when Aoyama wakes the next day, Asami is gone. As he searches for her, Aoyama learns of Asami's turbulent history, but soon he is the one in serious trouble.
Miike intended the film to be disturbing, and not just because of its violent images. "The human being is a very unstable creature, and any peace that a person feels, it can be destroyed very easily," he says. "In the film, Aoyama falls in love with Asami, and his life is completely changed." Calamity ensues, culminating in a grisly attack on Aoyama's lower extremities that makes Kathy Bates' treatment of James Caan's feet in 1990's "Misery" look downright gentle. "Audition" is based on a story by Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami, and Miike claims that "the ending there is even more cruel."
Miike, 41, is best known for his low-budget genre films ("Audition" was budgeted at just under $1 million) and is nothing if not prolific. He has made more than 30 films since 1995, 10 since completing "Audition" in 1999. Miike has developed an avid following among international critics and filmgoers but appears somewhat leery of close examination of his work.
"I make these movies one after the other after the other and barely stop to take a breath," he says. "Is it possible that people who see them, who have more time to reflect, to write about them--are they maybe over-analyzing the material?"
The numerous genre films made by Miike and other Japanese filmmakers are often direct-to-video titles that sometimes are released in one theater in Japan for promotional purposes, usually for a late-night showing. Few have made it to American shores. One that has is "Cure," directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to cinema legend Akira Kurosawa), which opened in Los Angeles in July.
Like "Audition," "Cure" is an eerie psychological thriller, the story of a murder investigation. It also shares with "Audition" moments of up-close-and-personal bodily harm. This violence-propelled genre has for some time been popular in Japan, where there has been much less concern about that type of film content than in this country. But that may be changing.
Late last year, veteran director Kinji Fukasaku drew strong criticism for "Battle Royale," a bleak futuristic tale about a group of teenagers stranded on an island who embark on something of a "Survivor"-meets-"Ten Little Indians" scenario. It's kill or be killed until only one person is left. "Battle Royale" was the first film in Japan that bore a restricted label because of violent content. The R-15 rating was meant to ban moviegoers under age 15, but the system is weakly enforced.
Although relatively few Japanese genre films have been released in the U.S., they do have their enthusiastic admirers. American Cinematheque has hosted three Japanese Outlaw Masters series, most recently last month, when "Audition" had its Los Angeles premiere. The film has also been released theatrically in a number of American cities and has done quite well, except in San Francisco, where it was locked into a previously set Sept. 14 opening date.
"That was meant to be a huge release for us," Schultz says of the unfortunate timing, just three days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. "Every review that week said, 'Could these people have picked a worse time to open a horrifying film?' We barely survived."
The atmosphere created in "Audition" is one of deliberate ambiguity. Scenes are replayed with altered dialogue. Characters suffer hallucinations. At times it seems possible that what is happening might be a dream.
"Each character in the film has a different sense of time and what happens," Miike says. "There is only one truth of this movie, which is that each of the characters aches. And the audience can feel their pain."
No one who has watched "Audition" through to its end would disagree with that.