Book Look: “Audition”

I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed in myself right now. Usually I know which popular movies are based on novels. And with becoming a horror fan recently, I would have thought I’d heard about Ryu Murakami’s Odishion, published in the US as Audition. Just shows I need to keep expanding my horizons.

First published in 1997, Audition is a Japanese horror/thriller about a budding romance gone horribly wrong. Unlike more famous works of Japanese horror like Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge, there are no supernatural forces at work here. The monster is real and human, and you can’t see her for what she is until it’s too late. Takashi Miike directed a film adaptation in 1999, and it’s this version of the story that is more widely known: the original novel wasn’t translated into English until a decade later. This translation is what I’ve read and what I’ll be discussing — perhaps we’ll save the movie for another time.

The Plot: Mr. Aoyama is a widower of seven years with a steady job and a good relationship with his teenage son Shige. He’s begun to entertain the thought of remarrying but isn’t enthused at the prospect of dating. Not only is he middle-aged and awkward, but he doesn’t think most “ordinary” women can meet his high standards for the perfect wife. Aoyama’s friend Mr. Yoshikawa comes up with a plan to bring Aoyama’s dream girl to him instead: a fake movie audition that will give Aoyama the chance to meet thousands of gorgeous, talented women and pick the one he likes best. This is how Aoyama meets Yamasaki Asami, an alluring ex-ballerina nearly twenty years his junior. It’s love at first sight, and Aoyama sets out to woo Asami, ignoring friends and family who insist that something’s off about this girl. But the farther Aoyama falls, the more apparent it becomes that Asami is not what she seems…and that she gets very upset when men lie to her.

Audition is more of a novella than a proper novel; the US edition runs 190 pages exactly. The problem here is not that it’s short, but that it’s somewhat unbalanced as a story. That summary I gave you up there? That covers 90 to 95 percent of the book. It takes us that long to reach the insanity that we signed up for, which is only in the final chapter or two. Before that, the book meanders along towards the reveal of what’s really going on with Asami, playing out like a conventional romance novel with a few red flags along the way. Some of those red flags are more blatant than others. Take this passage, for example:

The male imagination is a powerful thing, and it was enough to tip the balance. And to seal his fate. He had no way of knowing the unspeakable horrors that awaited him.

Page 30

Another element which contributes to the problem of the narrative feeling static is that Aoyama is the sole viewpoint we get to hear from. And Aoyama is just not that interesting or likeable as a protagonist. He doesn’t have any problems in his life that desperately need fixing: the book tells us right up front that he’s already pretty happy and has accomplished his major goals in life. Nor are his goals within the narrative all that commendable. We are told he wants to get remarried because he wants companionship, but what he really wants is the idea of a woman, a trophy wife. He doesn’t want to put much effort into looking for one, either. Listen to how he talks about that idea:

“Beautiful women are like stag beetles,” he said. “The all-but-extinct black panther, or that prehistoric fish they found off Madagascar, the coelacanth. It’s not like you can find a stag beetle marching down the street, right? You have to go deep into the woods, under some tree.”

Pages 13-14

He’s got a specific set of rules for the woman he wants to marry. She ought to be in a certain age range. She has to be classically trained in some sort of discipline, like music or dancing. She can’t be “contaminated by the entertainment industry” (page 15). And when he meets someone who fulfills those criteria, he’s immediately obsessed and doesn’t bother to learn any concrete details about her. Aoyama doesn’t deserve what happens to him in the finale, but he doesn’t really deserve to be as happy as he is for most of the book, either. He’s kind of an idiot, not realizing that anything is off with Asami until she’s trying to…well, I won’t spoil that part for you.

For all the time that Audition spends building up to its gruesome climax, that part of the book comes and goes pretty quickly. With twenty pages left, the story realizes that it needs to answer some questions and deliver on what the summary promised. So it slams the breaks just long enough to give a matter-of-fact info dump on our antagonist, and then it drives headlong into the finale.

And that finale is awesome. It’s bloody, it’s gag-inducing, it effortlessly creates an atmosphere of creepiness and dread. It hits you with some visceral, fundamentally disturbing stuff. Trigger warning for the death of an animal, by the way. It’s not quick, and it’s not pretty.

But once that finale ends, so does the book. Everything comes to a grinding halt with barely a page to give us time to think about what just happened, leaving us as shocked and disoriented as Aoyama. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It comes off as an intentional choice meant to leave the reader uncomfortable and disturbed. But I can’t help but wonder if there was a chapter lost in translation or in the editing process that gave us more of a resolution. We don’t get to see Aoyama or the people around him dealing with the consequences of his mistakes. It feels like the book ends before it’s really over, if that makes sense.

So, would I recommend Audition? If you aren’t already a horror/thriller fan, I doubt it will do anything for you. If you are, then give it a try, but be prepared for a slow burn followed by a quick flare-up. Perhaps that will appeal to you more than it did me. If anything, I’m now interested in checking out the film adaptation just to see how faithful it is. Since it’s so well-regarded as a horror film, I suspect it may not be.

Next time: another horror review, this time of something more recent and a lot better. Prepare for the Untethering! Snip snip!

— Dana

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