Variously described as "shocking", "distasteful" and "seriously disturbed", the film version of this novel is an infamous cult-classic blend of cunning and stomach-turning horror. There are numerous accounts of audience walk-outs and faintings, and being a sensitive soul, I opted for the original - Ryu Murakami's book of identical name and premise. I assumed - perhaps wrongly, on reflection - that the grisly twists and turns of the tale's finale might be somewhat less disturbing on paper.
Although the novel has been around since before the film's 1999 release, it only last year received an English-language translation. The book is a slick, efficient affair that motors through its two-hundred pages generating a growing feel of trepidation and unease that is unleashed in its viscerally chilling finale. Neither overly wordy nor lacking in depth, Audition plays out as a thoroughly modern love story with a gut-punching twist.
Unusually, the novel telegraphs this turn in events from the outset; the none-too-subtle cover art, blurb and indeed, tone of some of the early conversations between the protagonists do more than hint at the shift in gear to come.
Aoyama is a widower who, encouraged by his son, decides to look for a new partner. Discussing his intentions with a friend, film producer Yoshikawa, the pair strike upon an innovative - if slightly deceitful - method of finding the ideal woman for Aoyama, who feels he's rather too old for the traditional dating game. Holding auditions for a film role that doesn't exist, a series of women present themselves for interview, but our protagonist is captivated by one in particular.
Yamisaki Asami is a demure, self-effacing young woman who is thrilled to be contacted some weeks later by Aoyama. The pair meet several times for dinner, and slowly a relationship develops, until they elect to go away to spend a weekend in each other's company. As much as he is stunned to have captured the affections of this intense, beautiful character though, there's something about the woman that doesn't sit quite right; nagging doubts echoed by his friend's warnings, questions about her past whose answers are elusive ...
We know things aren't going to end happily, and that's a bit of a shame, really. Although the rising sense of dread is impossible to shake off, Aoyama is a pretty likeable figure, and we certainly don't find ourselves wishing him downfall. For a story with such a reputation, it's a surprise to discover just how little horror there is in the book. The author deserves some credit for delivering such a restrained shocker, even if he does let all such conceits loose come a conclusion that lives up to all the hype surrounding Audition.
If this isn't a traditional piece of horror, it's all the stronger for it. In fact, it's probably mislabelling the book to cast it as such. This is far closer in tone to the likes of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis than pure horror; a story of apparent normality that takes a distinctly dark plunge - here manifested in the seemingly harmless romance that the tale for the most part is. Murakami doesn't waste his words - Audition whips through its events at a good pace, although it still finds time to muse upon modern Japanese culture and the sense of loneliness which drives Aoyama to seek new love.
Undeniably disturbing though it is in its resolution, it's perhaps too easy to overlook the excellence of the small, sharp book that Murakami has created. The decade-plus wait for an English translation has been well worth it, for this is a haunting, perfectly-judged slow-burner. If you've a strong stomach, you'll savour a wonderfully dark story that proves that love really is blind. Or at least partially-sighted.