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[whitespace] Eihi Shiina
Making Her Point: Potential bride Asami (Eihi Shiina) turns out to be more than her wannabe husband bargained for in 'Audition.'

Slice of Life

Takashi Miike overvalues viscera in 'Audition' and 'Dead or Alive,' two sanguinary samples of Tokyo pop cinema

By Richard von Busack

THE STANDARD ARTICLE on Tokyo pop cinema starts off by exclaiming what a crowded, polluted and sometimes neurotic nation Japan is in 2001. This approach has been used once too often; it reminds me of the advertisement tagline for a since-forgotten Mondo Cane-style documentary: "From Asia, where life is cheap!"

Takashi Miike is as blunt as a club about the way his films reflect social decay. "Japan has had it," sighs an executive in Miike's Audition; the line is meant to justify the film's visceral thrills as social critique. At the end of Miike's Dead or Alive, Japan literally gets it, once and for all.

With Audition and Dead or Alive, 41-year-old director Miike makes his local debut (both films open at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose). He is not to be confused with Japanese director Takeshi Kitano (a.k.a., Beat Takeshi). Miike may need a nickname of his own: "Slice" Takashi?

"Slice" comes to mind after viewing the torture sequence that caps Audition. Just as cringe-inducing, Dead or Alive includes a scene of a man buggering another man in a public restroom: The bottom man is braced with both hands on the urinal. Gangster enters and slices man's throat slowly with a stiletto, drenching man and urinal alike in arterial spray. If you don't like that, you just don't like the movies. I don't identify the characters by name, but Slice doesn't either.

Dead or Alive begins with a long rampage. Yakuza gangsters in their retro sunglasses race over the streets, terrorizing the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo. A porky middle-aged businessman wolfs down bowls of soup, stacking up the messy dishes as if he were in a noodle-eating contest. The attack begins. It's all raw sensation--very explicit and yet low impact.

Miike--and some of his fans--think that violence can be amped up by randomness. When this much brutality is stacked so high, however, it paradoxically produces little effect. There's nothing at stake, no sense of characters you want to see spared or splattered. You might as well be channel surfing.

IN AN INTERVIEW with Eiga Hi Ho magazine (included with the press notes), Miike talks like a crass salesman, parading his impoverished background, his contempt for art and learning, his desire to make some real money.

I know many great directors weren't above mercenary motives. In almost every interview he gave, Alfred Hitchcock stressed his devotion to the box office. Some intemperate critics compare Takashi to Hitchcock--no one wants to be in the position of those stodgy writers who thought Psycho was in bad taste, and Slice has been overpraised extravagantly in both The New York Times and the London Times.

I'd never presume what the right reaction is for an audience. Moviegoers sometimes titter when they're witnessing spectacular acts of violence; shock can make them laugh. Still, I can't imagine an ambiguous reaction to the Dead or Alive scene in which a whore is drowned in a wading pool of her own shit.

The scene shocks, but it's not staged in any way to make us admire the hideous artifice or lament the barbarism. The villain who drowns the girl isn't even the principal villain, which would arguably have given the film's good-vs.-bad tale more force.

Although the storytelling is all over the place in Dead or Alive, the backbone follows the standard Woo way. There's the Chinese immigrant gangster, Ryuichi (Riki Takeuchi), with the usual Elvis haircut and his typical good, sensitive brother, who is bullet-fodder if ever we saw it. Ryuichi opposes Inspector Jojima (Show Aikawa), a cop whose daughter needs a heart operation.

In a device that sounds witty--though it's not staged for humor--the local chief of police is a sort of amateur Zen monk. He's retreated to the roof of the police headquarters, where he constructs bamboo flutes--removed from the out-of-control city below. The chief philosophizes, "Evil in itself isn't bad, as long as we keep the balance."

Miike presents the chief as a fool who's given up, even though this attitude toward the balance of good and evil is usually the keel of the speedboat in Asian action movies. Miike instead thinks in terms of the big shootout, announced by the villain in an aside: "Here comes the last scene."

The final gunfight is seemingly inspired by Tex Avery's cartoon "King-Size Canary." The weapons escalate to the point of ridiculousness. Slice makes the same discovery that Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino made in From Dusk Till Dawn: when film noir gets to a certain level of preposterousness, the movie might as well head straight into the supernatural, since no one is expected to take it seriously.

Audition begins with deceptive blandness, like a Tokyo version of Henry Jaglom's Someone to Love. A widower named Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) is pressured by his son into getting married. After consulting with a friend, they cook up a scheme to hold an audition for an imaginary movie, in order to meet a potential wife. After hearing out lots of applicants, Aoyama chooses a mild, modest traditional girl, Asami (Eihi Shiina), whose times as a ballerina ended abruptly when she was injured.

Since the widower still grieves for his wife, he's drawn to Asami's own sorrow for the loss for her career. They meet, but when Aoyama checks the girl's background, it turns out that she has no verifiable past or employment. We also learn that she lives in a furnitureless slum apartment with a moaning burlap bag on the floor. Something human-sized inside the bag is fighting to get out.

THE PROBLEM with Audition is that it keeps the beast in the bag too long. No doubt, part of my lack of strong feeling for the film is because my interest in the sexual side of pain is pretty much nil. When the delicate little Asami brings out the needles and the razor wire, cooing to her tools of mutilation in a here-kitty-kitty voice, bondage fans might get a kick. To me, Audition left a minor impression as a dull movie with a nasty finale.

After watching Audition, I was surprised to discover some critics enthusiastically proclaiming Slice's work "feminist." Some societies consider female genitals a dangerous pollutant--strong enough to make the man who views or touches them unclean. You could argue, facetiously, that a woman's power in such a society was immense--just as you could argue that Fatal Attraction was a reminder of the feminist power of a scorned woman, or that Macbeth demonstrates the feminist yearning for a career.

While I'm fond of witches, I realize they're just the flip side of the princess stereotype. Unlike other true feminist avengers, Asami doesn't occupy the center of the picture. We learn she was tortured into insanity: she didn't have enough personality to go bad on her own.

Moreover, we're encouraged to share Aoyama's distaste for the desperateness of the women who audition for the part in the bogus film--they're too brash, too Westernized, too highly sexed and too exuberant. Aoyama's a nice, polite fellow after all.

Tales of revenge are only really involving if we feel like there's something serious to avenge. Thus, Othello is traditionally played as a blusterer, boasting of the love of his woman, so there's some kind of essential justice when Iago strikes. (Consider the old Japanese motto: the nail that sticks his head up gets hammered down.)

I am not much dazzled by the notion of how cheap life is. Unless life is worth something to begin with, there's no thrill in seeing it undersold. Still, gore needs no justification, it sells itself.

Audition and Dead or Alive exist only for their sensational scenes. Japan may be crumbling, as these films complain, but there's no need to celebrate a crumbling art. Naming Takashi Miike as the hottest and the latest from the nation that gave us Ozu, Mizoguchi and Kurosawa is criticism at its most junk-food-addled.

Audition (Unrated, probably R; 115 min.), directed by Takashi Miike, written by Ryu Murakami, photographed by Hideo Yamamoto and starring Ryo Ishibashi and Eihi Shiina, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose. Dead or Alive (Unrated, probably R; 105 min.), directed by Takashi Miike, written by Ichiro Ryu, photographed by Hideo Yamamoto and starring Riki Takeuchi and Show Aikawa, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the September 13-19, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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