You should probably go into Takashi Miike’s Audition as blank as possible, though, as with Psycho, you can enjoy it even if you know where it’s going. Hell, the marketing spoils any big surprises it has (if you catch this on DVD and have a habit of watching the trailer for the movie before the movie itself, do not do that with Audition; the enclosed two trailers give away quite a few shocks that need to be experienced virginally and in context to retain their full oomph). But, like a lot of people who’ve seen Audition, I have a sadistic little daydream of showing it to clueless friends who’ve never heard of it. I wouldn’t show them the DVD cover art; I would even make them stay out of the room until the film was in play mode, so they wouldn’t even see the menu. Then they’d watch the movie and take it for a sensitive Japanese drama about a widower looking for companionship — up until the halfway mark, anyway. They would have no idea what they were in for. Of course, the daydream realistically ends with my shocked and disgusted friends throwing me out of their living room by the scruff of my neck, so perhaps it should stay a daydream.

Those who have heard of Audition — and it’s far from the only film in the insanely prolific Takashi Miike’s portfolio, but it is likely the most notorious — may, conversely, go into it expecting more than they’ll get. The first hour is becalmed (deceptively becalmed, of course), normal, mainstream — it’s television. It begins rather sentimentally, in a hospital room. Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is watching his wife slip away on her deathbed. Their young son, meanwhile, is walking towards the room with a homemade “Get Well Soon, Mom” gift in his hands. By the time he gets there, she has flatlined. The father and son leave the hospital together in quiet grief. Cut to seven years later. Aoyama and his now-teenage son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) are fishing. They have an easy, comfortable relationship — we see that Aoyama has raised his son alone (with the help of his maid Rie, played by Toshie Negishi) and done a serviceable job; the kid turned out okay, with a possible girlfriend and an unquenchable passion for dinosaurs (which may suggest that in a lot of ways, the son hasn’t matured a lot since his mom’s death).

Aoyama, a production executive, is mostly content but vaguely lonely. His son tells him that he should remarry before he gets any older (he is perhaps in his mid-forties); his colleague and friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) seconds this, and proposes a plan for Aoyama to meet the perfect woman — i.e., “beautiful, classy, and obedient.” They’ll hold an audition for a non-existent movie, analyzing the women who arrive to try out for the “role,” asking questions relevant to Aoyama’s companionship needs. We get a pretty funny montage of various women sitting for the men and their camera, sometimes dancing around (a couple even disrobe).

Aoyama, however, has already made up his mind; for him, the audition is almost a formality to appease Yoshikawa, because while going through the paper applications, Aoyama has come across a woman whose story touches his soul. Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) writes about herself modestly, enclosing an innocent, almost bashful-looking head shot. She mentions studying ballet for 12 years until a hip injury ended her dream; facing the reality of her post-ballet life, she says, was “like accepting death.” Aoyama is hooked. He’s hooked even more when her audition shows her to be a quiet angel in white, even more beautiful than her photo allows, who doesn’t even bother to “act” or be “on” for this supposed “role.” She is simply herself.

Aoyama is in love. Yoshikawa has his doubts — he doesn’t like her; he can’t put his finger on it, but he muses that it’s “something chemical.” But we can dismiss that as the grumblings of a jealous friend. Aoyama will be happy again after seven years of loneliness. He and Asami go out a couple of times. Then, around 45 minutes into the film, comes a quiet and massively creepy moment — it’s one of the more frightening things I’ve seen in a movie. Asami sits in her apartment, on the floor, slumped and with her back to us; nearby is a phone, and, in the background, a laundry sack. Cut to Aoyama, debating whether to call Asami. Cut back to Asami: the phone rings. What follows is so chilling that it completely and permanently alters our perception of everything afterward.

And everything afterward is pretty fucking intense. I’m not going to reveal more, except to say that Takashi Miike is an unquestionable master. When he wants to make Asami look pure and beautiful, you want to hug her and protect her and make her happy. When he wants to make her look menacing, you’ve never seen anything scarier. The movie will get under your skin and stay there for many days. The denouement in itself is not particularly bloody or explicit — if you’ve seen Kirby Dick’s documentary Sick about Bob Flanagan, for instance, you’ve seen a lot more upsetting imagery than Audition offers. But the emotional force of it is what lodges it in your mind — the sense that the actions arise not from sadism or vengeful rage but from deeply twisted and damaged love. That’s a lot spookier. The night after seeing this, I literally had a nightmare about Asami smiling sweetly and chirping “Kiri-kiri-kiri” (“deeper, deeper, deeper”), which sounds like kitty kitty kitty (talk about cat and mouse games); it’s been a very, very long time since a movie infected my dreamsleep so immediately. Needless to say, I’m eager to watch it again as soon as possible.

Audition becomes a bit of a confuse-a-thon in the end zone. Miike plays guess-what’s-real games: “Oh, it was all a dream” segues into “Okay, guess it wasn’t all a dream” and from there into “Okay, what the hell is or isn’t a dream?” This may be a deal-breaker for those who don’t appreciate such capricious directorial prerogative. But Miike knows what he’s doing. He begins with a straight and mainstream story, then sets the chaos of decay in motion. The story collapses; the only reality left is agony and shock. Or, as Asami points out, “Words can lie; pain is all you can trust.” And the movie is immaculately acted through all of it, by two leads who are not primarily actors; you wouldn’t know from Ryo Ishibashi’s placid, recessive performance as Aoyama that in real life he’s a rock musician, and Eihi Shiina is almost an absolute beginner, a model stepping into acting. (She’d better give up on any hopes of being hired to advertise innocent-image products, that’s for damn sure; maybe she has a bright future modelling latex aprons or medical supplies.) Audition is a serious, affecting drama that turns into an emotional slaughterhouse and endurance test (those who are queasy about seeing vomit in movies had better stay far away) but remains serious and affecting. Miike says he tries not to work in easy genres, but this is a horror film in the purest sense: You witness in close-up the physical and psychic pain one human can inflict on another, in the name of love, and being horrified is the only conceivable reaction.

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