A few weeks ago, the trailer for Mary Harron’s latest film dropped. By the looks of it, Charlie Says endeavors to explore the pathos of the notorious Manson Girls after they committed brutal slayings at the behest of Charles Manson. Its most fascinating element is that the girls don’t seem to be hippie commune cardboard cutouts; Harron is likely applying the same delicate hand towards their trauma as she did to that of Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol. The effect is deep; as much as I love Misery‘s Annie Wilkes and The Loved Ones‘ Lola, some of genre film’s most fascinating women villains are ones who are victims and aggressors. For Dread Central’s Asian Cinema April, we’re taking a closer look at such a villain in Takashi Miike’s 1999 thriller Audition.
Based upon Ryū Murakami’s book of the same name, Audition follows a widower attempting to find a new wife, and the bloody fallout that ensues. Several years after the death of his wife, Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) holds auditions for a faux film production. It’s shady; the audition is really a tryout to become his next wife. He is looking for a quiet, obedient mate to make his house a home again. Basically, he is interested in a wife insofar as she can enrich his life, and no further. During the process, Aoyama becomes entranced by the reserved, mysterious Asami (Eihi Shiina), and they start courting. Soon, Aoyama learns that Asami has some baggage and takes the overly attached girlfriend meme to a vicious extreme.
Like any film that goes to extremes, Audition has gotten a mixed reception. Many in the horror community in particular laud the film, but there have been criticisms. Fingers point toward Asami as a flat character, feeding into the stereotypical depiction of the psychotic scorned woman. She’s not, and she doesn’t.
Archetype-wise, Asami is a classic noir femme fatale. She’s a maneater, who entrances and then compromises Aoyama with her womanly wiles. Outside of her audition paperwork, Aoyama knows little about her; she tells him her place of employment (which turns out to be an epic taffy pull of a sliver of truth) but gently persuades him that she would be uncomfortable with his visiting her workplace. She avoids discussing her (lack of) family, but Aoyama fails to disclose that he has a teenage son, which levels the playing field to a degree.
A turning point in the film occurs when Aoyama and Asami have sex. Before she allows him to lay with her, Asami tells him that he has to love her and only her. No one else. He agrees, they get busy, and he falls asleep afterward. He starts to tumble down the rabbit hole from there. Most of the plot progression after this plays fast and loose between fantasy and reality, with technical cues (lighting changes, exaggerated sound mixing, jarring edits, logical impossibilities, etc.) illuminating the moments that are in Aoyama’s head. The film is not inherently empathetic toward Asami. It’s told mostly from Aoyama’s point of view, with a handful of sequences from Asami’s POV. The Arrow Blu-ray features an interview with Takashi Miike, “Ties That Bind”; the director goes so far as to declare that Audition is the story of “one man’s intensely private feelings.” To take it a step further, the film’s ambiguity and malleable reality (Aoyama has visions that can’t possibly be real) hint towards third-act, post-coitus Asami as a manifestation of Aoyama’s fears about women, and his guilt about entering the dating scene again. Even during these moments, the character of Asami as a projection of Aoyama’s relationship anxieties is one of fantastic depth for a monstrous woman villain.
Asami is not the typical hysterical villainess. Yes, the cheese slides off her cracker once she realizes that Aoyama has a son and thus, in her mind, can’t love her and only her. We generally tut-tut portrayals of women villains who become villains because of a dude. But dismissing her as a woman scorned without acknowledging the depth that her trauma gives her is a straight-up chump move. Asami’s baggage is heavy; a freaky sequence with Renji Ishibashi presents her younger self being sexually assaulted and burned on the inner thighs with a hot poker by her ballet instructor, who also masturbates as she dances in a quick-but-WTF flurry of Aoyama’s feverish visions. So it’s not a stretch to connect that horrific experience with her adult need for assurances of loyalty and a deep connection from men.
As the story goes on, that need is made monstrous in several sequences: Aoyama witnesses Asami feeding her own regurgitated vomit to her ex-boyfriend that she keeps in a large bag, mutilated to the point of complete dependence upon her. It’s a nice reversal of the expectations that Aoyama has of his ideal mate when he holds the bogus audition in the first place: tame (the ex’s feet have been amputated), quiet (his tongue has been removed), and obedient (he is deferential and grateful for the puke served in his pet bowl). The climactic torture scene puts Aoyama in the position of the dependent man, as Asami paralyzes him with drugs and places needles one-by-one at his most vulnerable nervous points. She then saws off his foot (note: Murakami’s novel takes it further and has both feet being removed), bringing the projection of his relationship dread into fleshy focus in a grotesque echo of the hobbling scene in Misery. The cherry on top is that her childhood trauma forges a link between affection and violence, which is exactly how she expresses her desires to Aoyama as she penetrates and slices him. She even says, “Only pain and suffering will make you realize who you are.” She tortures him not because of what he did, but because of who she is.
It must be mentioned that the Murakami-Miike connection is a beautiful example of inner demons that dance well together. Murakami’s novels center around late 20th century relationships in Japan. So, of course, Takashi Miike, the creator who made head trips like Gozu, explorations of guilt in the crime world with Rainy Dog, and the notoriously hyperviolent Ichi The Killer, would be the man to depict tortured souls torturing each other in an adaptation of Audition. But in the heart of the gore and torture porn (an unfair label for this particular film) beats the lifeblood of the film, and so many of Murakami’s works: intense loneliness. By the end of the home invasion and torture sequence, Asami and Aoyama lay on the floor, gazing into each other’s eyes. It is then that Asami, with a busted neck, faces her flaws and speaks about her need for connection. As Cheap Trick croons, she wants to be wanted and needs to be needed. Aoyama feels seen in the process, and a sort of messed-up understanding is reached between the two souls.
But when it comes down to it, if you want to look at the scoreboard: the character was created by a man in his novel, which was then adapted into a film by a man, in which her most horrific actions are the projected fears of a male protagonist. What of the woman who played Asami? In her cast interview on the Arrow blu release, actress Eihi Shiina elaborates on what she brought to the role:
“She didn’t intend to be mean to guys, that was how she expressed her love and filled a spiritual void. I think Aoyama was very loyal to Asami. That’s how I look at it. But she can’t feel it. She couldn’t accept the fact that her boyfriends had their own world. She can’t understand that. That’s what was sad about her. She didn’t think she was loved when they also loved other people. She was feeling a spiritual void.“
Again– loneliness. More than simply being evil for evil’s sake, Asami’s heinous actions are rooted in a tangible flaw: her insatiable craving for pure and total devotion. So while this is primarily a man’s story about a man’s fears, the woman who acts as the catalyst, boogeyman, and distillery for these fears is anything but a cardboard cutout, which is what allows for so many varied readings of her character.
If the showrunners of Dexter and Hannibal can enjoy praise of their characters as complex villains, then the same appreciation can be applied towards the likes of Aileen Wournos of Monster, Amy Dunne of Gone Girl, and my girl Asami. Regardless of who did what and who was victimized, the two leads of Audition reach a curious rapport by film’s end. The collective efforts of Murakami on the page, Miike in his adaptation, and Shiina in her performance succeed in crafting a complex femme villain, one who stands a-tiptoe above the oversimplified crazy bitches in dark cinema.