It’s probably wrong to write about Audition without watching the film first, given the enormous shadow it casts over horror pop-culture. I’ve seen about a dozen other Miike films, and I’m a fan of his challenging, idiosyncratic work. I’m sure I’ll be writing about Audition: The Movie too, once I get around to it. I’m sure it’s very upsetting. Today though, we’re focusing on the original novel. I wondered how it might differ, and whether it would be harder or easier to stomach. Let’s start with the first moment of terror, the cover.

Just… let it sink in.

Hey, what?

Is Audition a web adaptation of a popular anime? Is it How To Draw Manga, the book I bought in like grade 8, the one hiding in the closet at my parents’ house? What is happening with her hand? Will this book teach me to draw Goku?”, you might wonder to yourself. It won’t. This is maybe the most misleading cover since that eerily sexy, beach-read Bell Jar that came out a few years ago. It almost has to be intentional, this is malicious-intent level misdirection. Or maybe it’s just lazy, medium-racist marketing short-hand for Japanese Book. You pick. Thankfully, the cover is the only thing about Audition that disappoints – you won’t learn anything about drawing manga here, but that doesn’t mean it won’t make an impression.

Anyone who reads horror plot summaries on Wikipedia as compulsively as I do knows the skeleton of Audition‘s plot: a lonely man sets up a morally dubious “audition” for a new girlfriend under the pretense of an acting gig, meets the girl of his dreams, hijinks ensue. Very bad hijinks. The novel follows the same basic premise, and I assumed I was in for a fairly standard thriller. I was wrong and very pleasantly surprised.

The first thing you need to know about Ryu Murakami’s Audition is that it moves lightning quick: my edition is just shy of 200 pages, with a generous font and margins. I never read, and it took me one evening, and twenty pages the next morning to finish Audition. It flies. There’s an Irvine Welsh(!) quotation on the back of the book to the same effect – if you aren’t reading this in a single go, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The way it turns its own screws until the tension hits a breaking point and releases like a snapping razor wire; I can’t imagine stretching this experience out over multiple sittings. That said, Audition is not the violent breakneck thriller it’s often made out to be. Though the tension is eventually suffocating, it takes until the final twenty pages or so to explode into violence – and while foreshadowing sets in early, there’s no genuine sense of nagging dread until about halfway. In a longer novel, this might eventually become an issue. In Audition, it’s a difference of about 40 minutes of reading. And what a difference it makes. 

Spoiler time. I won’t ruin the twists, but you know this is horror, yes?

…ok I might ruin a twist or two, but I won’t spoil the ending. That’s all yours.

Audition’s first third or so focuses on the mundane details of our protagonist Aoyama’s life, predicated on the tragic loss of his wife Ryoko and the many ways he finds to cope. There are his many faults and vices, his deepening relationship with his son, and the way he sinks completely into his work: all of these are distractions, the book tells us, to facilitate his recovery. This is a point that Murakami stresses over and over: though loss can be processed in different ways, nothing but time will ultimately heal that wound. Aoyama is not an unhappy man, but neither is he fulfilled. He floats through his days on mixture of work, nostalgia and love for his son. Romantic intimacy is the one coping mechanism he hasn’t tried, and it shows: Aoyama survives but he’s lonely, and his loneliness is growing.

It’s that loneliness talking when he decides to defraud young women into auditioning for a non-existent film project.

Where it goes from there you might be able to guess. It’s weirder than you expect, I promise. We spend a great deal of time with Aoyama, just exploring the details of his life. Audition is eerily, uncomfortably normal, right up until the moment the mask slips. It is eventually a horror novel, but for much of the read it’s an exploration of loss, guilt and flawed responses to trauma. It’s riveting.

Aoyama loses Ryoko to a viral cancer that takes her life at random – it’s the memory of this trauma that causes him to recede from the world. Meanwhile, his teenage son Shige is left to process the loss of his mother as well. Murakami makes special note of the way he sinks into computers and passion projects, hoping to outrun the reality of his mother’s death while the wound heals in the background. He lives his life in a form of benign denial, and largely it works: Shige lives a normal, slightly mischievous life as he slowly heals. Unburdened by nostalgia, he is able to move past Ryoko’s death and mature into a surprisingly wise young man. Done grieving, it’s Shige that diagnoses his father’s growing loneliness and suggests he find a wife.

Meanwhile, Aoyama disappears into his career, hiring women to meet his sexual needs but intentionally declining intimacy. This, too, is a coping mechanism – as much to the loss of his wife as to the rapidly changing world around him, a Japan that has passed out of its golden era into a grasping, intense capitalism. This new Japan is an alien world to him, and the disconnect is as much a product of his grief as his growing irrelevance. Poisoned by his own nostalgia, he can’t adapt. While Aoyama is close with his son, he doesn’t understand him: young Shige, born into this new world, has a different set of tools with which to deal with loss. Shige isn’t visited by the specter of guilt that comes to haunt his father. The generation gap, fed by his grief, is a yawning emptiness at Aoyama’s core: the world has changed, but he fails to grow with it. He doesn’t have the tools.

Drunk, Aoyama lashes out and sets up the audition, scamming young women into vying for his affection under the guise of a movie role. A beautiful, strange young woman immediately steps into his life and shakes him to his core, setting off a chain of events that slide uncontrollably backwards into disaster.  

I’ll stop there. This isn’t a long book, and there’s the Miike film if you need to know what happens next in grisly detail.

Much of the criticism surrounding Audition (book and movie) has focused on whether it is a feminist or misogynist novel. That’s a tough one. While the politics of gender and sexuality are certainly a theme in Murakami’s work – particularly the possession and objectification of women – I’m not sure the book has anything concrete to say. Placing Audition on a strict feminist spectrum is difficult because it can be read in either direction. Scene to scene our villain is an object, a vengeful ghost, a metaphor for the consequences of sexist objectification, or an attempt to condemn empowered sexuality. She’s clearly a femme fatale trope, but she can also be read as a dominating sexual force, empowered but emotionally hollow. She’s barely a person, but it’s clear we’re meant to empathize with her. Does this mean Audition is misogynistic? Difficult to say, though it definitely has problematic components. It’s also from 1997 – I understand the film is more clear.

The book is not ambiguous about the generation gap and Ryoko’s death, dual traumas that loom heavy over our characters and their relationships. Our villain is as much a caricature of vengeance as she is a manifestation of guilt and grief and fear`.

Let’s talk about the villain for a bit.

There are moments the the entire cast feel less like people than metaphors: scarred by trauma, they’ve all warped in different ways. While Shige largely recovers and our villain lives her own strange life, Aoyama’s loneliness turns to desperation. The audition is the manifestation of that desperation. There’s an obvious, ugly sexism to this act that Murakami takes note of immediately: the deception at the core of the audition is his undoing, a dishonest attempt to solve an honest problem. This deception summons Aoyama’s punishment immediately, and she’s just as inscrutable as his son.

What happens next is a kind of karmic reward.

Yamasaki Asami, the beautiful young woman he meets, has experienced trauma of her own. Her coping mechanisms are far more straightforward, but much less pleasant. She’s a clear villain, but she’s also a generation younger than Aoyama. The book emphasizes this disconnect immediately: Asami is supernaturally beautiful, but she’s one more alien in a world Aoyama doesn’t understand. She is using Aoyama, but not in the way you might think. She needs him in the same ways he needs her, but operates on different logic. Attempting to live her own life and heal from her own intense trauma, Asami becomes one more millennial horror to a man completely out of step with his own life. Very literally.

Asami’s motivations are far more complex than revenge. Yes Aoyama is dishonest, and that dishonesty is his undoing. But, critically, he is incapable of adapting to the generational shift that Shige and Asami represent. He can’t learn the language. Asami’s coping mechanism is monstrous, but there’s a larger looming threat that she embodies. She’s a metaphor, a clear one, both for the terror of an unfamiliar world and the horrible things desperate people might do to survive there. Asami is only a monster once she is made into one.

To Aoyama though, she is a boogeyman. And in Audition‘s more psychedelic moments – there are many, they’re gorgeously written – she takes on a vengeful-ghost quality. She is the specter of dishonesty, loneliness and trauma. On the surface Audition reads like an urban legend: Asami is the cliche of desperate desire and its punishment. She’s also fucking terrifying. 

While Aoyama goes through the ringer and learns a lesson, it’s Asami that comes out the loser. Even in the world of Audition, she’s a prop. Does this mean Audition is sexist? Well, yes. It is. But there are layers of subtlety beneath its femme-fatale exterior that deserve to be recognized. It is a condemnation of abuse, an instruction manual for processing grief, a sympathetic vision of that grief and the monstrosity it can inspire, and a metaphor for the terror of the millennial shift. It’s also a hell of a thriller with a bunch of gore and sex and disturbing imagery. At least at the very end.

Whether you think that’s up your alley or not is entirely your call. If nothing else, Audition is the story of one dad’s totally optional trip to hell.

I thought it was fascinating. 

Now I should probably watch that movie, huh.