Takashi Miike’s Audition isn’t a film that intends to be upfront. Known for its violence and being at the center of some debate about its potentially feminist themes, Audition can, in its first half, easily be mistaken for a romantic film about a widower meeting the ideal woman through the strange circumstance of a mock audition (if certain shots are omitted). It’s a film that is cautious about what information it provides, gradually giving the audience only as much information as they need and teasing a dark underbelly that isn’t fully revealed until the latter third of the film.
Much like the film itself, antagonist Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is careful and restrained, treading lightly for most of the runtime before ultimately unraveling into a vicious torturer towards the film’s conclusion. She has protagonist Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) wrapped around her finger before vanishing without a trace — like an apparition — at the peak of their romance, only to return with cold needles to slowly drive into his flesh.
But Asami’s status as a villainess is much more nuanced, with her past and present inviting both scorn and, possibly, empathy from the viewer. By all conventional standards, she is the film’s villain; despite her claims of honesty, she’s deceitful from the outset of the process, inserting disappeared or non-existent references on her resume and fabricating excuses on their whereabouts. In one scene at a restaurant, she tells Aoyama, “I would never lie to you,” which, at face value and without considering any of the hints provided as to her true self, seems genuine enough. In the scene at the beachside resort, she says the burns on her thighs were accidental — which is also proven to be a lie later on — and tells him she wants him to know everything about her. Asami has zero intention of being remotely honest with Aoyama because in doing so she risks blowing her cover and revealing her true self. Instead, she wants to have Aoyama as close as possible, a goal she achieves in their moment of intimacy on the beach trip before she vanishes.
In the final torture sequence, Asami gleefully drives needles into Aoyama’s abdomen with reckless abandon, teasing him with the repetition of “kiri-kiri-kiri” (“deeper, deeper, deeper”) as she drives the sharp metal deeper and deeper into him, before progressing to a piano wire amputation. It’s not difficult to imagine the torture others had to endure at her hand, with anonymous bodies thrashing in bags and vomit in dog bowls as feed for her victims. It’s the thorough enjoyment she takes in this brutality that cements her as a villain.
But even before any needles penetrate flesh, Asami clearly enjoys the game of seducing Aoyama. In the scene where she’s patiently slumped over by the phone waiting for a call from him, Asami is completely motionless and expressionless until the phone rings, at which point she seems to slowly come back to life.
Aoyama, while ultimately becoming a victim himself, is arguably also a perpetrator of harm. The criteria that he specifies for the auditioning women, selected so they emulate his deceased wife, reduces the women to a list of qualities and ignores their human value, therefore objectifying them. While he may not have set up the audition with malicious intent, and even expressed his own reservations at first when his friend Yoshikawa (Jun Kunimura) made all the arrangements and put the plan into action (“I feel like a criminal”, Aoyama says right before commencing the audition), he still followed through with the plan. Despite the audition itself being overall legitimate (having originally been funded and set up by the production company as a film to be produced regardless of Aoyama and Yoshikawa’s hidden intentions), it’s the fact that Aoyama pursued Asami outside of the audition, per Yoshikawa’s suggestion, that puts him at some fault. His pursuit is an abuse of the power he holds above Asami as someone promising potential employment, or even some sort of stardom. Aoyama is also so blinded by his fascination with Asami to the point he willingly ignores all red flags, brushing off Yoshikawa’s warnings about being unable to find or contact any of her references. It isn’t until Asami’s disappearance, when he begins to go after her trail, that Aoyama begins to realize Asami might not be who he thought she was at all.
Additionally, Audition’s dream sequence highlights Aoyama’s previous relationships, erasing any ambiguity surrounding the relationship between him and the woman at his office with whom he had a one-night stand, which led to her feeling used and nervous around him. This further points out Aoyama’s objectification of women and puts him under a more scrutinizing lens, rather than the more sympathetic one he’s been under for most of the film’s runtime.
But Asami, at her core, is a victim. She describes horror stories of broken shoulders, ice baths, and abusive stepfathers to Aoyama in great detail, these descriptions most likely being the only true parts of her character. Given this abuse, her perception of love is a distorted one, inextricable from the kind of violence she experienced herself. Her own trauma, both physical and sexual — the latter, although not explicit, is very strongly hinted at in the ballet studio scene — manifests in her becoming active in her own revenge rather than being a passive victim.
This warped perception of love and the accompanying desire for retribution becomes an obsession, with Asami dead set on inflicting suffering upon anyone who wrongs her in the slightest, including the ill-fated Aoyama. She appears as a harmless, submissive young woman who would make an ideal wife under Aoyama’s standards, pulling him in close under the semi-manufactured persona she’s invented — an illusion that is first cracked when we see her kneeling in a bare room beside a body bag while she waits by the phone.
The torture scene is a culmination of their faults: while she prepares to do irreversible damage to him, Asami accuses Aoyama of calling up girls from the audition in order to have sex with them. The film’s ending — including Asami’s death and Aoyama’s unknown fate after his son narrowly avoids being tortured himself — doesn’t offer an easy way out for any character. This is what makes Audition succeed as a film: not just its pacing, but also the fact that it doesn’t offer an easy answer to the distinction between victim and perpetrator. Both characters suffer, and neither of them is entirely without fault, although it’s easier to view Asami as a villain. In reality, however, they both have a hand at either side of the spectrum, neither of them fully in one box or the other. And with that moral complexity, they seem more real to us than we’d care to admit.