No 469 Audition by Ryu Murakami, translated by Ralph McCarthy

In 1999, riding the wave of interest in Korean horror movies, Takashi Miike’s Audition hit our cinemas and subsequently appeared on every ‘Best Horror Films of All Time’ list with remarkable regularity.

The source material for the film was written by Ryu Murakami in 1997 and its horror is of a much more insidious kind.

As the novel opens, we are introduced to Aoyama, a Tokyo-based documentary film-maker in his forties, who has been single since the tragic death of his wife seven years previously. Urged on by his teenage son Shige, Aoyama decides it’s time to try and meet a new woman and settle down. So, does he visit some bars? Try some online dating? No. Aoyama and his friend Yoshikawa have a more morally dubious plan when it comes to dating. They concoct an idea that they will stage auditions for the female lead in a non-existent movie, meaning that Aoyama can source a woman matching the exact criteria he needs.

It makes for an interesting premise and creates an unpalatable atmosphere of power and coercion that pervades the whole book. Pushing aside his initial misgivings, Aoyama goes along with the plan and has soon fallen head over heels for the beautiful and enigmatic Yamasaki who has, it seems, some exacting criteria of her own.

At first everything seems to go well. Aoyama doesn’t seem to question why a stunningly beautiful and talented woman in her early twenties would adore him so completely, but then again, Aoyama is used to getting what he wants and not questioning his good luck.

There are hints though, that not all is well. Yamasaki admits to having been abused by her step-father as a child and as a result is clingy and prone to mood swings. Aoyama’s friends are concerned about the speed at which the relationship is progressing. There is something about Yamasaki that they find off-putting but can’t quite put their finger on.

“She’s like smoke: you think you’re seeing her clearly enough, but when you reach for her there’s nothing there. …  I think you’d be better off staying away from someone like her. I can’t read her exactly, but I can tell she’s either a saint or a monster. Maybe both extremes at once, but not somewhere in between.”

 And what of the young man in the wheelchair, who, when he sees Yamasaki in a restaurant is almost overcome with terror? Is it possible that Aoyama has made a very big mistake?

The first two-thirds of Audition is driven by a prose that is taut and economical, barrelling through the audition process with a perfunctory sense of narrative drive. Despite this, or maybe because of it, the novel is an interesting exploration of the power dynamics in relationships in Japan. Aoyama feels that the audition process is a perfectly valid means of meeting a woman and doesn’t consider that the woman in question might be more disappointed that there was never a film role to begin with when she can end up in a relationship instead.

There is a sense of lifestyle over depth here as Aoyama searches for a woman who is smart, but not too smart, and talented but not driven by her own needs. In this way, the analogy of the audition is an almost perfect one. The woman that he believes he will meet will be playing a part that he has devised.

Yamasaki is happy to play her part until she realises that she is not the centre of Aoyama’s attention and it is at this point that things start to go very wrong and the narrative kicks up a gear.

The couple take a trip to a woodland retreat and Aoyama’s daydream of a second marriage starts to unravel at breakneck speed. Murakami comes into his own here, creating hallucinatory, propulsive prose that blurs the lines between passion and horror. The final third builds to a truly mesmerising denouement that manages to shock without descending into farce and is paced to perfection. Compared to the earlier prose in the book, the reader is jolted by the sharp, exact writing as Murakami details Yamasaki’s grisly revenge.

It’s a shame then that Yamasaki is such a two-dimensional character. She is either an angel or a monster and we see nothing else of her. The suggestion that the abuse she suffered as a child has led her to the unhinged behaviour that she exhibits by the end of the novel is simplistic and trite, and Murakami dealt with that theme much better in his other novel Piercing. Here it simply feeds in to a narrative about the male fear of female sexuality.

Audition is a short, nasty shock of a book building slowly to create a real sense of dread and terror. It ends quite abruptly and while not as downright frightening as the film adaptation, it still delivers and leaves the reader with the question – ‘who exactly was auditioning?’

As with Ring, which I reviewed earlier this year, this is another case of the movie being better than the book!

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

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