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Steffen Hantke

Paracinema and the Neoliberal Subject:
Takeshi Miike’s Audition as Global Cinema

Let me begin with a long quote from cultural critic Masao Miyoshi, who, in broad terms, theorizes the reading situation I am going to discuss in this paper. Thinking about what happens when a Western reader confronts a Japanese text, Myoshi states:
Every experience of reading a marginal text is at least potentially upsetting. When a third world text is read in the first world, the sense of unfamiliarity is often marked, and the reader’s discomfort is proportionately acute. To restore the accustomed equilibrium, the reader either domesticates or neutralizes the exoticism of the text. The strategy for domestication is to exaggerate the familiar aspects of the text and thereby disperse its discreteness in the hegemonic sphere of first world literature […] The experience of reading a foreign text is nearly always transformed into an act of self-reaffirmation. The plan for neutralization also operates by distancing the menacing source. A strange text is acknowledged to be strange, and this tautology, implicit in such a procedure, thrusts the text out of the reader’s proximity. One opens a book in order to close it, as it were. Such pseudocomments as “delicate,” “lyrical,” or “suggestive,” if not “illogical,” “impenetrable,” or “incoherent” seek to conceal the absence of an encounter by cluttering up the field of reading and distracting the reader from the text.
Myoshi’s model strikes me as particularly interesting in the context of a recent article on horror film in the Guardian, in which Steve Rose argues that “US horror has had no new ideas since the slasher movies of the 1980s.” In support of this statement, he cites, somewhat sarcastically, the titles of current and future US horror films: “Looking forward to Scary Movie 3: Lord of the Brooms? Or Halloween: Resurrection? Or how about Freddy VS Jason, which doubles as Nightmare on Elm Street Part Nine and Friday 13th Part 11?” Given these examples, Rose’s indictment that US horror film returns to “formulas and franchises [that] have been squeezed dry” rings devastatingly true. The remedy for this creative attrition, according to Rose, is Hollywood’s remaking of Asian horror films, the best example of which, so far, has been Hideo Nakata’s Ringu, reincarnated as Gore Verbinski’s Ring in October 2002. Many others, I am afraid to say, are to follow.

According to Miyoshi’s model, these remakes of Japanese horror films are a form of domestication. Starting from the assumption that the sources of fear are culturally universal, they make minor modifications to the original in order to neutralize its menacing otherness. They are the easiest, most convenient way of providing a Western audience with an opportunity for cultural self-affirmation. These remakes take up the discursive space of their respective original, displace and perhaps even marginalize it, and thus, in a move of circular logic, reaffirm the existence of cultural universals.

But the exhaustion of American horror film has also increased Western interest in original Japanese cinema. Kyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, for example, had a critically and commercially successful run in US arthouse cinemas in 2001, as did Kenji Fukusaka’s Battle Royale. The availability of Japanese horror film on video and DVD has increased, as more internet distributors target an increasingly differentiated niche market. Although films like Cure, Battle Royale, or Ring cannot compete globally with the desperately inflated production and advertising budgets of large US horror films, their new prominence in Western markets is a sign that there is an audience that responds favorably inclined toward cultural imports.

Of these Japanese horror films that have recently made inroads into the Western market, Takeshi Miike’s Audition deserves special attention. Its arrival was accompanied by scandal; audiences during the 2000 Rotterdam Film Festival walked out in record numbers, and viewers during a showing in Switzerland needed to be taken to the emergency room. Of course, incidents like these tend to endear a film to horror audiences, but Audition also did well in the mainstream. Reviewer Peter Bradshaw waxes poetically about Audition’s ability to morph from “almost Reineresque [i.e. Rob Reiner] romantic comedy” into “a horrific black butterfly emerg[ing] from the chrysalis.” Another reviewer praises Miike for doing “a wonderful job sucking us into his cinematic world.” Ken Eisner praises the film’s “haunting beauty,” its lyrical pacing, and its potential for “arthouse play . . . especially in latenight venues.”

These critical accolades, published in Western mainstream journals and newspapers like The Guardian and Variety, indicate that, though Audition’s notoriety may have given it a certain degree of cult leverage, it is not Miike’s willingness to resort to visual and thematic extremes that makes the film unique. Rather, it is its ability to cross social and national boundaries: from popular entertainment to arthouse cinema, from East to West. What is the price, one wonders, of such adaptability? Negatively speaking, a kind of generic and cultural blandness, a lack of distinguishing features? Or, positively speaking, an openness that reader response theory postulates as the essential prerequisite of all meaningful reading engagement? I would like to address these questions by coming back to Masao Myoshi’s model of “domestication” and “neutralization,” albeit in a roundabout way. Let me first summarize, very briefly, the plot of Audition for you.

The film’s protagonist Aoyama, a middle-aged widower raising a teenage son named Shigehiko, decides to get married a second time seven years after the death of his beloved wife Ryoko. A friend of his in the film industry suggests that the two of them schedule a fake audition, which would allow Aoyama to interview a group of women selected to meet his specific standards for a new wife. Among the contestants is a young woman named Asami, whose application catches Aoyama’s eye; she seems everything he had hoped for. Despite his friend’s vague sense of unease, Aoyama asks Asami out. She gratefully accepts his invitation, and after a short time he decides to propose to her. However, during a romantic weekend getaway, Asami vanishes from their shared bed. She leaves the hotel and disappears without a trace. Still in love, Aoyama begins investigating some of the personal information she provided during the audition. Her personal and professional information does not check out, and there are a mysterious disappearance and murder in her past. At a dead end of his investigation, Aoyama returns to his apartment and sits down with a glass of whisky. But Asami has spiked the drink and hidden upstairs. When Aoyama falls paralyzed, yet awake, to the floor, she appears and begins to torture and mutilate him. When his son returns home unexpectedly, a shuffle ensues between the two, which ends with Asami being fatally injured in a fall down a steep flight of stairs.

Western audiences will immediately recognize the trope of the female avenger—this does look like a Japanese Fatal Attraction. Strikingly, however, Miike employs this clichéd motif of horror film purely as a generic element, as postmodern pastiche. He makes no noticeable attempt to endow it with a sense of aesthetic freshness or originality. “Of course, the casting couch try-out is hardly a novelty,” reviewer Peter Bradshaw complains, “and the audition scene here is shot like every audition scene in every film you’ve ever seen: with a jokey collage of clips of all the desperately unsuitable hopefuls.” Another reviewer writes: “We know the score from the outset: man falls for beautiful woman. Woman is a bit strange, but man ignores this and continues to find himself enraptured by her beauty and mystique. This is a theme, which has been explored time and time again within the context of countless made-for-television drama/thrillers.” It is possible to extend this argument from Miike’s choice of motifs to his use of cinematic style. Most of Audition is shot in a self-effacing manner, privileging continuity editing, medium shots, and naturalistic lighting. The film is evenly paced, eschewing any composition that draws attention to itself by appearing contrived or melodramatic.

To all of these formulaic elements of Audition, Western audiences are likely to respond with relief. They make the film predictable and familiar. Foregrounding genre serves as an ethnocentric filter, the same mechanism as that of Miyoshi’s “domestication.” As the director, Miike carefully constructs this viewing position for his audience, ensuring, in effect, that his film will have a better chance in markets outside his native Japan.

Whatever does remain in Audition that may be genuinely Japanese, the critics help to neutralize, as they try to come to terms with the not-so generically safe parts of the film. While the first two thirds of Audition invite “pseudocomments”--as Miyoshi calls them--such as ‘delicate,’ ‘lyrical,’ or ‘suggestive,’” the final third of the film is rather ‘illogical,” ‘impenetrable,’ or ‘incoherent’.” Reviewer Gary Morris describes this midcourse transformation of Audition best. The film, he writes,
differs from its peers in seeming to be two quite different films. For close to an hour it has the look and feel of a classic Japanese family drama. [But then] just past midpoint everything changes: the film bails on the narrative, intertwines dream sequences and reality so densely there’s no telling what’s real, and pushes the gore and grue to a limit rarely seen outside the cheesy cinematic bloodbaths of 1960s schlocksters like Herschell Gordon Lewis or Al Adamson.

The deliberately interpretive ambiguities of the film’s final reel, its sudden complexity, interiority, and extremity, have lead critics toward comparisons with other directors, most notable with Hitchcock, Lynch and, Cronenberg. These comparisons elevate Miike to the level of auteur. The fact that auteurism is deployed in the critical discourse fits with the strong positive validation of radical forms of ambiguity and difficulty. It signals an aesthetic that wants nothing to do with the social associations of genre cinema. By cordoning itself off against all readings of Audition as a horror film, it marks itself as a form of high modernism. This is confirmed by Andreas Huyssen’s influential reading of modernism as “constituted […] through a conscious strategy of exclusion, an anxiety of contamination by its other: an increasingly consuming and engulfing mass culture.” Insisting on the author’s individual signature as an absolute means declaring larger cultural contexts irrelevant. This is, to use Miyoshi’s terminology yet again, an act of domestication. 

But there is still a middle ground where genre and auteur film reach out to their respective opposite. Formulaic elements in plot (e.g. the violent intrusion of a radical other into the sphere of bourgeois normality), in character (e.g. the friend whose warnings about the imminent threat go unheeded until it is too late), and in theme (e.g. images of the abject body, as Asami feeds her amputated male victim with her own vomit), are undeniably derived from the low genre of horror. Combining them with Miike’s signature style, the critical discourse produces the label of “paracinema,” coined by Jeffrey Sconce. High culture, Joan Hawkins argues, “trades on the same images, tropes, and themes that characterize low culture” (3). The objective of these tropes, whether they are derived from one end of the social spectrum or the other, is to challenge “the formally constructed notion of mainstream good taste” (30). By combining high modernism with low body horror, Audition seems to settle comfortably at the point where both ends of the spectrum meet.

This paracinematic sensibility, interestingly enough, also connects with the idea of a film like Audition being a kind of global commodity. Alvin Lu explains that “’J-Horror’ [as in, the new Japanese horror film] has become one of the hottest trends at the turn-of-the-century in international film” because it “offers broader cultural resonance, a wilder, more fertile exploitation movie vitality, and a more delirious sense of irrationality that make the genre a fascinating negative image of the global pop culture machine.”

Critic Takayuki Tatsumi supplies the appropriate postmodernist theory that goes along with such an image when arguing for “a paradigm shift from the logic of imitation to the logic of synchronicity” in the theorizing of global cultural relations. Cultural commodities circulate through the global economy at such speed that it is useless, even misleading, to look for distinct cultural points of origin. Indebted to Paul Virilio’s argument that contemporary theories of global space have yet to catch up with radically altered experiences of speed, Tatsumi calls this model “Japanoid.” What he means by that is “ the post-eighties hyper-Creole subjectivity transgressing the boundary between the Japanese and the non-Japanese, and in so doing, naturalizing the very act of transgression.” Directly relevant to Audition’s Western audience is Tatsumi’s argument that what is at stake now “is the canonical distinctions between Western identity and Japanese identity, Orientalism and Occidentalism, and Anglo-American narcissism and Japanese masochism.” His notion of the “Japanoid” would invalidate such an intercultural psychological dynamic, denying Western audiences, for example, both the foundation for constructing Japan as a “good” or a “bad” Other. With the culturally boundaries demolished, there would be no reason any longer for neutralizing the menacing alterity in Miike’s film. Retroactively, a Japanoid perspective would also pull the carpet from under all arguments about the domesticating effects of US remakes of Japanese films since Tatsumi’s ideal viewers would be capable of reading both text and subtext simultaneously.

Socially speaking, the image conjured up by Tatsumi and Lu implies a global utopia of benign, collaborative economics of the type we see in commercials by Sprint, Microsoft, or Archer Daniels Midland. Images of the global village as economic utopia work out, consciously or unconsciously, a neoliberal politics that is socially coded as the prerogative of the upper-middle class. Its cherished mobility, presented as an inevitable outgrowth of technology as second nature, is a social prerogative paid for by uneven global development. Tatsumi’s proposal takes this class-dependent vision and projects it onto cultures at large, dismissing Sander Gilman’s reminder that every act of boundary transgression triggers anxieties about the integrity of the self. The protest against globalization from a variety of different positions throughout the last twenty years indicates that Tatsumi’s global utopia poses considerable threats to the formation of selves, culturally, socially, and psychologically.