FEMINISM, AUDITION, AND THE HUM OF CONSCIENCE
by Chris R. Morgan
What you are about to read should not be construed as a confession, a profession, or an endorsement of feminism. It is not a statement of conversion or a pledge of allegiance. I’m not going to use the space I’m given on this platform to extol upon the rights of women as individuals or as a collective. I’m not going to praise the relative intellectual unremarkability between the sexes. Nor am I going to pledge for more sincere, concerted efforts to achieve their greater equality. Surveying the ideological expanse of feminism, its successive waves and innumerable offshoots, there are too many avenues to turn down, and not enough time and energy required to dedicate finding my way back out of any of them. And I shall remain steadfast in this, no matter how right and good the underlying principles are, no matter how simple I’m told it will be, or how advantageous it will be to my moral and material well-being. Perhaps, gun drawn to my head, in the ascension of one of any number of competing femocracies, I would find some incentive to reconsider my commitment.
But I admit that I find myself in the minority here, a lone holdout among a desecrated social pasture. Its richness is bankrupt and my company is abject. Every day I look at the furthest horizon and see faint specks, pilgrims making their way to the more bountiful plain. While I have made a comfortable enough home in these badlands, I understand the lure of wanting to get away from it. Feminism has a future, it seems, not wilting in promise. If that is the direction they seek to go, far be it from me to tell them otherwise. Indeed, I would gladly assist them in their pursuit. Feminism’s freeway is actually not as easily navigable as it may at first seem, certainly not for those travelers who do not fall into feminism’s demographic locus. So with some risk, I venture just far enough from shelter to bring light upon a discovery that would be helpful in pushing outsiders more safely into the feminist grazing lands.
If one seeks to be feminist to the utmost conclusiveness, with the deepest conviction, these are the steps required: don’t.
Please be assured that this is no trick to alleviate my loneliness. The counsel I offer could not be more distinct from my mode of living. Why this truth sought me as the distribution vessel to the wider consciousness is perhaps best left a mystery. Nevertheless, I can only offer this discovery as it came to me.
Takashi Miike’s 1999 film Audition owes its reputation in the United States primarily to reaching the once unthinkable achievement of having left Rob Zombie “creeped out” by his viewing of it. Indeed, much of the film’s fame rests on its final 20 minutes, a scene which ranks among the most violent sequences ever simulated on camera. It is a justified, if somewhat ironic, legacy, as it is alleged that Miike initially did not intend to include the grisly climax, painstaking, methodical, even symphonic though it came out in the end. Though the film’s influence on “torture porn” renders it dubious to some, to the point that many wave off even the inclination to watch it, that scene and every action that led to it assures it as one of the greatest horror films ever made, and at least lends weight to a claim of being one of the best films ever made, full stop.
The effect of the film is rooted within its careful construction. Ryo Ishibashi plays Aoyama, a middle-aged, widowed television executive who sets up a fraudulent audition in order to find a suitable new woman. Eihi Shiina plays Asami, a former ballerina and aspiring actress whose delicate sensibilities and passive charm catch Aoyama’s attention. If the premise sounds overly cute that’s because it is. The first hour of the film is set up not unlike any given romance. The tone is sentimental rather than menacing; the score is mournful rather than dreadful. Contrasting the horror of the final scene is the comedy of the titular scene, in which Aoyama and his producer friend endure a jaunty montage of eager young actress hopefuls in varying shapes, sizes, talents, and states of mind. It is chipper, and a bit bewildering but a clever set up for the stately introduction of Asami, whom Aoyama had earlier singled out in a previous scene which, as he flips through résumés and headshots, anticipates Tinder. Waifish, doll-like, sweet, and almost exclusively dressed in white, Asami is archetypical in the extreme; a rendition of the iconic roles of Audrey Hepburn and Meg Ryan drained of all blood. The former model Shiina displays a near-blank slate of gentle kindness that enraptures Aoyama instantly while leaving everyone else cold at the very least.
Gradually, Miike subverts the romantic comedy tropes, notably trading puzzling quirk with unsettling mystery. Asami’s background doesn’t check out. One of her references has disappeared. Her endless smile and pleasing nature is less of a trait and more of a smokescreen. The film was marketed for what it was, of course, but it did little to indicate just how the pieces were put into place. Miike’s reveals of Asami’s true nature and intentions, her background and traumas are teased out in strokes both subtle and bold. As the façade falls piece by piece, Aoyama, stricken with love for a woman he doesn’t know, loses all logic in an obsessive quest for closure.
True to its legacy, Audition is perhaps one of the most critiqued films in the history of film study, and almost always critiqued within the same parameters: is Audition feminist or misogynist? They have ranged from the thoughtful to the not-so-thoughtful. “Living in New York City,” Eli Roth recalls, “I’ve dated a few psychos, and there’s sometimes when you’re on a date with a girl and you’re like ‘Oh my god, this chick is totally nuts,’ and Audition is like the ultimate version of that horrible, horrible, horrible date scenario.” The debate will rage, of course, as criticism, for good or ill, is more conversation than judgment in the end. Yet for my part, I can say with confidence that it is not feminist.
To date, Takashi Miike has over 100 projects to his name as a director. Audition was one of seven he released in 1999, including a TV miniseries—indeed, Miike had been hired by a studio to make the film. In addition to the tension one feels while watching the film, one might just as easily dread the thought of its actual making, which was said to have taken three weeks, apparently one longer than Miike is accustomed to. His projects, understandably, are eclectic, including comedies and theatre productions, though he is known primarily for extreme and graphic films like Ichi the Killer and One Missed Call. At his best, Miike is playful and provocative, even when he is not being gruesome. His wide interests and the time constraints that his prolific activity impose upon him make articulating a coherent political agenda all but impossible.
Yet it is very easy to prescribe the film as feminist as it is at base not misogynist. Despite the alarming speed with which Miike was said to have made the film, Audition’s craft is evident, not least of all that of its characterization. As Dennis Lim put it in The Los Angeles Times:
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 is a violent film, true; and both of its characters repulse us in their own ways, yet it is a film devoid almost entirely of hate. Who can hate a man who is trying to find happiness, for himself and his family, while in mourning? Who, moreover, can hate a woman beset with as much trauma as Asami? Audition is not so much loathsome as it is sad. It is a well-made, entertaining, and disturbing film. It is a study of idealized love and its pitfalls, of the expectations of gender (particularly in Japan) and how they conflict. Perhaps to some this meets the criteria for a feminist film. Perhaps to others it does not. It doesn’t necessarily matter when the challenge is laid by the story and to be reckoned with by the viewer. Contrast this with Eli Roth, professed disciple of Miike, whose films such as Hostel, Green Inferno and Knock Knock, which dress ornate violence with blunt social commentary, but never to any useful or serious affect. “If [Knock Knock] is a feminist revenge story, as Roth has argued,” The AV Club’s A.A. Dowd wrote, “it’s a deeply confused one, since every prominent female character is either a duplicitous temptress or a neglectful, blue-balls-provoking spouse.”
Audition is not an argument. It does not seek to prove anything other than what happens when two people who should not have met meet. This is not to say that it is without conscience, it hums beneath the roar of its violence. In such cases, feminism, or any ideology, comes to it and it is in turn welcomed as any other guest, but not in any particular honor. Not, I suspect, out of any kind of mistrust or antipathy, but out of humility. It confirms for the guests that adverse conditions exist, and if not proposing any solution to them per se, can at least articulate their severity, in addition to their nuance. Its task is to see, and to a certain extent, to be influenced as much as it may or may not seek to influence. It can in turn be appreciated and sourced but not assimilated, for the good of everyone.