The Japanese cult auteur Takashi Miike, whose movies are typically seen by Western audiences at film festivals and on DVD, keeps up the speed-demon pace of an old-fashioned grind-house director. He has cranked out nearly 80 films since 1991, and his output is mind-boggling not just for its sheer volume but also for its improbable variety.
He ranges freely from horror (“One Missed Call”) to crime (“Dead or Alive”) to comedy (“Shangri-La”). He has made a superhero kids’ adventure (“Zebraman”), a zombie musical (“The Happiness of the Katakuris”) and what you might call a spaghetti Eastern (“Sukiyaki Western Django,” starring Quentin Tarantino).
But Miike’s forte is in the outre. His transgressions reached a squirm-inducing peak with 2001’s gangster movie “Ichi the Killer” (out in a Blu-ray edition from Tokyo Shock later this month). But Miike’s most notorious provocation remains the film that brought him to international attention: “Audition” (1999), which Shout Factory is issuing this week in a 10th-anniversary two-disc DVD in both standard-definition and Blu-ray editions.
A slow-burning nightmare of psychosexual anxiety, “Audition” begins as the subdued tale of a mild-mannered widower in search of a new bride and ends with a 20-minute torture session featuring acupuncture needles and a piano wire used as a bone saw.
Its early screenings became the stuff of cult-movie legend. At the International Film Festival Rotterdam, lines formed for the exits during the grisly finale; some in the audience sought out the director to express their disgust.
It’s easy to see why viewers might have felt duped -- or, like its hapless protagonist, trapped. For its first hour or so, “Audition” is practically a romantic drama. Seven years after his wife’s death, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), a film producer, is settling into lonely middle age. His colleagues and teenage son tell him it’s time to remarry. The scenario is reminiscent of the domestic films of the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, and Miike plays the early scenes very much in the calm, mournful manner of Ozu.
But nastiness soon creeps in. A colleague of Aoyama’s convinces him that the best matchmaking method is to audition pretty young things for a nonexistent project. Aoyama falls for Asami (Eihi Shiina), struck not just by her demure expression but also by her morbid sensibility and aura of tragedy -- she’s a former ballet dancer who likens the aftermath of her career-ending injury to an acceptance of death.
Head bowed and perpetually clad in virginal white, Asami is the epitome of Japanese womanhood, at least in the eyes of a certain type of Japanese man. (Aoyama says he’s looking for a “classy, obedient” mate.) But no sooner is that ideal established than Miike starts to subvert it.
The film gets more unstable as it proceeds, spinning off into what appear to be hallucinations and flashbacks. Scenes play out a second time, with their meanings altered. Lines are repeated, but in a different context. As Asami puts it, once the roles are reversed: “Words create lies. Pain can be trusted.”
“Audition” can be filed alongside Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s “Misery” and Lars von Trier’s upcoming “Antichrist,” movies that are ultimately about the male fear of women and female sexuality. In an introduction on the disc, Miike instructs viewers to enjoy the film, then slyly says, “You may regret watching it.”
The radical shift in tone that defines this booby-trapped movie is more than cheap misdirection. The unhinged finale is more horrific -- and more psychologically interesting -- for the control of the setup. Women are blatantly objectified in the first half (not least in the cattle-call audition), and the second half goes on to redress this imbalance, recasting Asami as an avenging angel.
It is too simplistic, however, to label Miike’s film as feminist -- or misogynist. What’s most surprising about “Audition” is the complex depiction of the characters, who are both predators and victims and, even at their worst, largely sympathetic figures. Miike suggests that Asami is, to some degree, a figment of Aoyama’s imagination -- or, more to the point, a projection of his guilt (at having betrayed his late wife and seduced his new girlfriend under false pretenses).
“Audition” slips between alternate realities without succumbing to the old “it was all a dream” cop-out. The line between reality and fantasy eventually disappears, and the effect is of a seamless, continuing nightmare, from which there is no escape.