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Why Audition and Ring Changed Horror for Good

19th March 2019
By Phil Hoad

One Sunday morning early in the new millennium in the English seaside town of Broadstairs, the film distributor Hamish McAlpine was on a scouting mission. As folk breezed past the window with their terriers, he was watching a beautiful Japanese girl delicately insert acupuncture needles into the eyeballs of a paralysed man. The guy convulsed. She whispered to him soothingly: “Kiri-kiri-kiri!”


Owner of the forward-thinking British film distributors Metro Tartan, McAlpine was getting started on his customary all-day Sunday viewing sessions at his weekend pied à terre, scouting for the latest in striking global cinema. He’d picked a random title out of his pile of videocassettes: Audition, by Miike Takashi. This wasn’t one you could settle down to, as McAlpine had already worked out by the time the girl manacled her victim’s ankles and held a length of metal filament over him: “This wire can cut easily through meat and bone.”


Sunday roasts were probably hitting the table in Broadstairs by the time the torture session was over, and McAlpine emerged shell-shocked and reached for the next VHS. It was another Japanese title he was unfamiliar with: Ring, by Nakata Hideo. Ninety very tense minutes later, he took stock. “I hadn’t consciously thought I wanted to watch Asian films — it just happened as a complete fluke,” says McAlpine. “But having seen two amazing horror films from Japan back-to-back, I realised something was up. So I sent my head of acquisitions to Tokyo the next Wednesday to suss out if these were the only two, or whether this was the start of some movement.” 


One look at the Japanese box-office charts would have given him the answer. Ring 0, a prequel and the fourth film in the series in only two years, had just opened. The Tomie series, based on a manga about a psychotic, immortal high-school girl, kicked off in 1999. The Ju-On franchise — with a vengeful, black-haired female spectre very much like Ring’s — was about to make its first two appearances in Japan’s highly significant V-cinema (straight-to-video) market, and a theatrical outing wasn’t far off. The freaky Uzumaki (trans: Spiral, 2000), with its obsession with spirals, and Kairo (Pulse, 2001), about a website offering a portal to the spirit world, were also in development.


The goldrush, and the movement that would later be dubbed J-horror, had begun. You seemingly couldn’t enter a Japanese cinema without a malevolent presence lurking on screen; it was hard to call whether this was a genuine case of cultural consciousness manifesting everywhere simultaneously, or just shrewd producers watching each others’ moves carefully, or a bit of both.


Image result for ringu still


But no one could doubt the impact of the Ring franchise. The first film had become the country’s highest grossing horror movie ever, and Nakata Hideo had ushered in a striking tone for scary movies. Stripping the story down to high-concept purity — watch a cursed videotape, and you will receive a phone-call informing you that you have a week to live — freed him to focus on an atmosphere of dread that bloomed almost uncontrollably. And Ring leaned eerily towards the viewer to deliver its sting in the tail: the implication that by watching, you might be hexed, too. It was the most successful attempt yet to drag the kaidan, the traditional Japanese ghost story, into the modern world.
One common feature shared by Ring and many of its brethren was a focus on technology as the conduit for evil — this would become a J-horror trademark. But just giving your neighbourhood demon a mobile-phone contract didn’t make these films worth watching. It was the unique tone of the best Japanese spookers that stood out, so different from their American counterparts, which were still mired in their lurid late 90s world of gore, serial killers, or the chatty irony of the Scream series.


Ring was still, serious, 96 minutes spent waiting for something unspeakable to emerge. Nakata spells out the new austerity: “Almost all of [J-horror] dealt with the fear and anxiety we feel in our daily lives — with the supernatural in a realistic context.” (ii) Sam Raimi, director of The Evil Dead and producer of the US remake of Ju-On, says watching the Japanese original was like being taken back to horror elementary school: “I was not aware of the manipulation, as I am in most American horror films. You don’t need the larger sledgehammer-type techniques that I often employ.” (iii) Evil was often paradoxically present in its absence in J-horror, not like the all-singing, all-dancing Freddy Kruegers and Michael Myers. Instead, it was the vacuum that grew to fill the gap: the eerie vibe of an attic, the grim portent of a dark ceiling stain, the dank reverb of a back alley. So how had Japan summoned something from nothing?


Nakata Hideo never had time to thank the ghost on soundstage 10 for his big breakthrough. He had just a week and half in 1995 to shoot his debut theatrical feature, and he had returned to Tokyo’s Nikkatsu studios to try and make the breakneck deadline. He had served a gruelling seven-year apprenticeship there in the 80s, working as assistant director on its infamous range of pinku softcore titles. The company pumped out films like Casio did watches, and expected its employees to put in industrial hours; Nakata had often found himself on the lot at 2 or 3am, wandering past the massive stacks of fake wooden houses back down to the soundstages. Number 10 was the one that was haunted, a spectre supposedly appearing in the gloom high up on the catwalk.


Nakata remembers: “I used to be scared when I went back to the stage when all the crew members were gone. You could feel the warmth of the lights, still, but nobody was there. And I would remember clearly the kinds of discussions or arguments between the directors and the cast members. The spookiness had something to do with the human feelings, or the emotions that are still there.” 


Of course the oldest movie studio in Japan, where the boundaries between the real and the spirit world are more porous than in the west, was going to have its own ghost. The late shift might not have been a comfortable place for the nervy young AD, but the ambience of lot 10 stayed with him: innumerable man-hours of film-making hanging heavy in the air, stretching all the way back to when Nikkatsu opened in 1912. This latent atmosphere was what Nakata had in mind when he pitched his debut: a story about a modern-day film shoot in which a spectral presence appears behind the lead actress on the rushes.


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Joyû-rei (1996, Ghost Actress/Don’t Look Up), drawing just 800 people in a six-week run in midnight screenings , wasn’t a big success. But Nakata showed a talent for sustaining an eerie, unsettling mood, and his central idea — the supernatural world insinuating itself in the technological fabric of modern-day life — was strikingly in step with that in Ringu, a 1991 novel by Suzuki Koji that had already shifted an impressive 500,000 copies by the time Joyû-rei was released. Billed as the Japanese Stephen King, Suzuki had efficiently melded kaidan, science-fiction and the modern thriller in his tale of a journalist investigating a cursed videotape that brought a horrific death exactly one week later to those who watched it. His book had already been adapted into a well-received made-for-TV film in 1995, and film producers Asmik Ace Entertainment were brought in to take it one step further. Suzuki, after watching Joyû-rei, made the suggestion that Nakata might be the man for the job.


Both Nakata and Asmik Ace were children of a new era in the Japanese film industry, in which real ghosts — the six established studios — still lingered, but were fading into intangibility. Nikkatsu’s Roman Porno series, which had saved the company in 1971 when TV — as in Hollywood — was cutting into its profits, was finally killed off by cheaply shot VHS erotica; the company had declared bankruptcy in 1993. Another venerable company, Shochiku, the house of Ozu, sold off its production facilities in 1999. Toei, clinging to the vertically integrated model of making films to show in its own cinemas that had stopped in the US in 1948, was struggling. The studio system seemed spent, with Hollywood produce increasingly dominating the country’s screens and, outside of anime, Japanese cinema lacking any strong international profile. Nakata remembers the air of defeat: “Japanese film studios seemed to be afraid of taking risks in film production. This kind of mentality gradually killed the enthusiasm of the people who worked there.”


Japan was already in deep recession after the 1980s asset-price bubble, but the truth was the film industry had been stagnating for years before that. As the major studios distanced themselves from the risks of actually making films, smaller, more dynamic independent production companies moved in to fill the vacuum. Asmik Ace was formed in 1997 from the merger of videogame producer Asmik and foreign-film distributor Ace Pictures; the latter was a subsidiary of Kadokawa Shoten, the publishing giant who had put out Ringu.The new production company picked up option rights for Suzuki’s novel along with Omega, another fledgling production outfit who would later oversee Audition.


"Apprehensive and insecure".
-Hideo Nakata


Nakata was a risky choice to be entrusted with the foundation stone of a potential franchise (the adaptation of Suzuki’s follow-up book Rasen was in development at the same time). He had no special interest in horror, and beyond a naturally “apprehensive and insecure” personality, no special qualifications for directing such forays into the paranormal. In the mid-90s, he was a tubby thirtysomething artistic ronin, wandering uneasily in the new climate of autonomy in the Japanese industry. Born in 1961 in the eastern city of Okayama, after leaving Nikkatsu, he went London for a year in 1993 on a year’s research scholarship from the government: “I thought it was important for me to get away for a while, and think over my situation within the industry.” But he finally ran out of money, and returned home to raise funds. It was producer Sentô Takenori—whose J-Movie Wars company was owned by the country’s first private satellite broadcaster Wowow, another player on Japan’s brave new media landscape — who he approached with the idea for Joyû-rei (Sentô later became one of Ring’s three producers). Nakata claims that picking horror as a genre had purely been a calculated decision: “I thought that would be the easiest to get accepted.”


Nakata had divined things correctly — horror had been building momentum, thanks to the real devotees. In 1991, Tsuruta Norio, a bored marketing-department employee at Japan Home Video, a thriving V-cinema hub churning out action flicks, anime and erotica, had persuaded his bosses to let him shoot an adaptation of the manga Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi (trans: Scary Stories That Really Happened). The material — episodic spooky tales in everyday domestic settings — was unusual for the video market, and managed to draw in a new audience: the young female constituency who had lapped up the books. “Usually, it was placed in the same corner as animation and Disney films. There was no age restriction, as there was no gore,” says Tsuruta. It was a big hit, especially considering the meagre 7m yen (about $60,000) outlay, and the inevitable sequels were lined up.


1964 Japanese classic Kwaidan


Tsuruta was a kaidan fan, and had been reacting to the increasing bloodlust in the country’s 80s horror scene. “These films were far too influenced by American cinema splatter and all went in the direction of Friday the 13th,” he says, “I was very disappointed because these productions had little to do with the typical Japanese ghost stories.” He had in mind handsome 1960s classics from the studios’ heyday, like Toho’s Onibaba and Kwaidan. Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi featured the same baleful female spectres, but was far more low-key, filmed with faux-documentary-style realism, tilting horror towards raw, unfiltered atmospherics. It might have been cheap-looking, but it was original.


The director, and Konaka Chiaki, his writer on Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi, were widely credited by the key players in the Japanese horror boom with having set the tone and much of the iconography for many of the later hits. Tsuruta, in the eyes of Kairo’s Kurosawa Kiyoshi (who became probably J-horror’s most critically respected director), was nothing less than “the inventor of another way of creating fear”. Kurosawa was watching closely, as was his screenwriter friend Takahashi Hiroshi. They had roomed together at Tokyo’s Christian-run university of Rikkyo, and were part of a clique of confirmed horror nuts: Kurosawa was big on Texas Chainsaw Massacredirector Tobe Hooper, Takahashi worshipped at the altar of HP Lovecraft, and their producer buddy Onishi Youchiro — who would kick off the Tomie series — was the kind of guy who would fly off to England to buy Hammer Horror figurines.


The craze for anthologised “real-life” horror, meanwhile, was picking up. Takahashi ended up scripting segments in 1992 for Hontouni Atta Kowai Hanashi, a rip-off of Tsuruta’s series. Three episodes were directed by Nakata Hideo, who had just left Nikkatsu. In one, a group of teenage girls in a traditional Japanese inn play with a video camera. Takahashi developed the technological theme in his treatment for Nakata’s Joyû-rei, four years later, and further still when he came to adapt Ringu. He also admitted that, working on the screenplay for the latter, he turned to another Tsuruta horror anthology, 1996’s Norowareta Bijotachi: Akuryou Kaidan, for inspiration: one segment also featured a hexed VHS. Suzuki Koji, whose novel had been published in 1991, might have been inclined to claim the most credit — except for the fact that the gimmick of the delayed curse had been floating in the ether since the English writer MR James first used it in 1911, in the form of an occult parchment in his story Casting the Runes.


Joyû-rei’s muted reception had given Takahashi doubts about Nakata’s feel for horror. He tried to push Tsuruta as his number one choice for Ring, but the producers deemed him lacking in feature-film — as opposed to video — experience, and plumped for Nakata instead. Perhaps his outsider status to the horror clique was an advantage, too — he wouldn’t be so beholden to the tropes and set rhythms of the genre. But he was sensible enough to realise what the fanatics had: that horror was moving somewhere different: “I don’t believe that blood, ugly creatures, or scary monsters work any longer. The reason is that young people have become accustomed not only to over-stimulated movies, but to true terror as well. In Japan, we have a rising tide of children killing parents, parents killing children, as well as killer cults. As a result, if I create a monster for a film, young people will see it in relation to this true terror and respond with laughter.” 


Four months of pre-production began in early 1997. By then, the producer who had originally picked up the rights to the novel, Ichise Takashige, had been toiling on the script for years, along with fellow producers Sentô and Kawai Shinya, and "just couldn’t get it worked out to my liking". Nakata and Takahashi cut straight into it, starting with the protagonist: they changed the gender from male to female. Suzuki Koji, who had raised his two daughters while his wife worked, was regarded as a phenomenon in Japanese society, part of the New Man generation that was busy getting in touch with its feelings in the west, too. He later wrote extensively on fatherhood and its responsibilities, and Ringu’s narrative motor was the journalist hero Asakawa Kazuyuki’s desire to protect his family. In moving the emphasis to motherhood, and the single variety at that, Nakata and Takahashi were playing to an audience of young, independent women who were increasingly visible and vocal in Japan.


The switch was Takahashi’s idea, but it was a clean fit for Nakata’s sensibility. He had been raised by a single mother, a teacher, and cited Max Ophüls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman and Hitchcock’s Rebecca, both of which have a strong female perspective, are among his favourite films: “I love melodramas. I always feel more related to those female protagonists who in an agony situation, dealing with genuine love, but something becomes an obstacle, and she just can’t continue.” (xiii) Ultimately in his career, typecast by his first success, Nakata would be forced to explore such torrid emotions most frequently in a horror context. But his best horror work, Ring and 2002’s Dark Water, benefited from the added dramatic charge and, with their housebound settings and fascination with their stricken women, often played like inflected variations on vintage domestic dramas by masters like Ozu.

And, of course, a female hero was the mirror image of Sadako, the demon on the other side of Ring’s TV screen: a wronged female ghost in the vein of classic kaidan. The groundwork for tapping Japanese folklore had been laid by the novel — but Suzuki Koji had also put tradition under the striplights of modernity. He drew on real, turn-of-the-century episodes of investigations into paranormal phenomena to flesh out the backstory of Yamamura Sadako, his murdered child psychic: in particular, a clairvoyant called Mifune Chizuko, who committed suicide in 1911 after being denounced as a charlatan by the press. Science and older ways of being were already at loggerheads in this frame story, and the cursed videotape brought this conflict alive again.


Its protagonists journeying from Tokyo to the countryside, and finally peering into the well to find Sadako’s bones, the novel had always been intent on a descent from the clear light of modernity to the murky depths of the country’s subconscious. Nakata, who as a child often spent time at a relative’s farmhouse where there was a well, had himself felt the pull of the rural hinterland and its layers of folk mythology: “My parents told me, ‘You should never go too close!’ I was imagining that this well was bottomless, or if I put my feet in the water, I’d be drowned or grabbed by some strange creature.” 


Hokuei Shunkosai’s 1832 woodcut


By stripping the book back to a sleek race-against-time structure (as the re-named Asakawa Reiko desperately seeks to get her death sentence lifted), the effect was to make the descent into Japan’s past reverberate more loudly. What was left was much closer to a classic kaidan, starkly transplanted in a modern setting. Sadako was restored to herself: a fully functional and sentient yurei, the vengeful shade in the high Japanese tradition, gifted with an unforgettably tormented manifestation: her climactic emergence through the television screen. There were eerie echoes of this in a 1830s woodcut by Hokuei Shunkosai, the ghost of a disfigured woman bulging out of a distended paper lantern; the print was based on the 1825 Yotsuya Kaidan, probably Japan’s most famous ghost story, which has been filmed over 20 times.


Sadako was kept in peripheral vision for the majority of the running time, and the script didn’t openly show any deaths until the final act, putting the emphasis on suspense and alienating ambiance. The producers, remembers Nakata, were getting uncomfortable — and not in a good way: “I did feel some doubt on their part when they asked why there wasn’t a single death, or why I didn’t show any deaths, since in the original book they describe the process of dying.”


But he persuaded them to accept the elegant, smart reworking. By July 1997 Nakata’s Ring was ready to go before the cameras. Sanada Hiroyuki, a graduate of “Sonny” Chiba’s Japan Action Club, a school for budding martial-arts stars, was unlikely casting as Reiko’s ex-husband, Ryuji, her sceptical companion in her efforts to lift the curse. Sanada recommended the popular 24-year-old actress Matsushima Nanako for the role of Reiko; the two had worked together the previous year in a TV movie.


Matsushima Nanako and Sanada Hiroyuki in Ring


No one in the summer of 1997 could anticipate how much of an international impact Ring would have. It was significant, though, that the project was conceived as Japan was looking outwards and renewing efforts to export its culture. Under the “return to Asia” policy of the 1990s that followed economic depression, the country abandoned its self-absorption and targeted its neighbours as markets for cultural produce. Japanese companies became increasingly adept at tailoring J-pop, for example, for Korean, Chinese and Taiwanese tastes.


It was part of a broader drive to promote Asian values — as summed up by the 90s slogan, Datsuo nyua (trans: exit the west, enter Asia). But, paradoxically, to have the necessary cutting-edge for this, Japan was also moving towards the US model of universally accessible mainstream entertainment. As much as hallowed totems of Japanese culture, Ring was cut with the base elements of global youth culture — which was essentially American. Ring was careful to embrace the teen demographic: its intro — two adolescent home alone swapping scary stories — was pure Wes Craven, and Matsushima’s presence, hot off Japan’s ubiquitous swimsuit-model circuit, was another sign of its intended audience. Nestling alongside vintage kaidan in the film’s DNA were predecessors from snappy US commercial horror, in which Takahashi Hiroshi at least was well-versed. The supernaturally attuned children and technological tropes of The Amityville Horror and Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist were two obvious touchstones.


American and Japanese influences were ultimately inseparable by the late 90s, part of the intertwining lattice of local and worldwide culture growing increasingly entangled everywhere. It didn’t matter which Ring owed most to; just that it delivered the goods. A techno-horror film hailing from the world’s greatest electronics exporting country might be expected to be something special, but it wasn’t breaking totally original ground either (David Cronenberg’s Videodrome had also included a scene in which a harbinger from another realm — namely Debbie Harry’s embouchure— enters reality via a TV screen). And the cursed-videotape gimmick was already on the verge of looking obsolete as DVD neared the market. The budget was set at a tentative $1.2m, medium-range for the Japanese industry, and Nakata had a relatively luxurious five weeks to shoot. It was time to wander into the dark — and it was down to him to find the spark.


Doomy … Oshima island


Shooting in the middle of typhoon season set Ring’s stormy tone, especially with protagonists Reiko and Ryuji running into a squall with a sense of gothic timing as they try to return to the mainland from Sadako’s birthplace, Oshima island. Oshima definitely had the right doomy associations: it was both the epicentre of the 1923 earthquake that shattered Tokyo and the site of Godzilla’s entombment (he falls into the volcano Mt Mihara). Filming in location there off the coast of Tokyo, Nakata sought out anywhere with “a very bad or unnatural feeling in the air”.


This cinematic kaidan had boiled the story down to its essentials, but crucial details still needed locking down. The biggest holes were the contents of the videotape, and Sadako’s emergence from the television: the former had to work harder than the average MacGuffin and have a lingering visual hold; succeed in that, and expectation would be high for the latter. In the novel, the videotape is almost 20 minutes long, and a mixture of menacing abstraction and scenes from Sadako’s own viewpoint, culminating in her murder. The version for the film would have to be compressed into a far shorter running time: less than a minute, in the final cut. Nakata went to Kurosawa Kiyoshi for ideas on how to bottle the essence of evil: there had been a similar sequence in the latter’s 1997 film Kyua (Cure). Kurosawa’s advice was simple: “The images have to be very old, like old family photos … To be truly frightening they have to be natural, like in documentaries.”


What Reiko eventually watches is, if anything, even more abstract than in the book, a short, grainy procession of disquieting imagery: a man peering down a well against passing clouds; a woman combing her hair in a mirror that flickers, for a frame or two, to the opposite side of the wall; kanji crawling like microbes, some spelling out the word “eruption”; several Sisyphean figures toiling helpless up a slope; a shrouded man pointing accusingly in front of the sea; a closeup of a near-reptilian eye, with a “Sada” kanji on the pupil; a prolonged shot of a well in a forest clearing; then static. The massed crawling figures, in particular, call to mind some nameless atrocity from mankind’s past, as if the whole of history is implicated by the video. Nakata spent four days of shooting and two of editing in order to give Sadako’s curse the necessary kick: a kind of monolithic opaqueness that rested on these surreal surges, bitesize Buñuel.


This new suggestive horror had been nurtured by Tsuruta Norio in the editing suites of the Japanese video industry, and here was Nakata distilling the essence of Tsurata’s sinister disquiet on magnetic tape. It was akin to the chain of victims in Ring, as if some unconscious cultural drive was at work, building up in the seamy underbelly of the entertainment industry, trying to articulate some anxiety about cinema, and perhaps modern life: something tainted in the very grain of the image.


Nakata was effectively the medium, channelling these unsettling undercurrents. And he was surprisingly well-attuned to the claustrophobic and coercive bent of film visuals. He might claim to be a horror naif, but actually, thanks to his schooling on Nikkatsu’s S&M features — with a number of surprisingly well-respected and artistic directors — he had an almost catechistic schooling in the similarities between it and the erotic. Both manipulated the viewer to generate tension in a quasi-sadomasochistic game of withholding and disclosure. Nakata had been exposed to two approaches from different Nikkatsu masters: “Kumashiro [Tatsumi] chose to pull the camera back and film sex scenes in ensemble shots, in order to be able to show everything. That didn’t do it for me, but it was interesting from a cinematography point of view. Konuma [Masaru], on the other hand, tried to find a way of showing less whilst obtaining a sexier result, with the help of closeups, for example. I followed his model a bit in the field of fear. Erotic sensations and ones of fear are related — they are both primitive forms of emotion … I discovered true sensuality that breaks free from a closeup on the terrified face of the lead actress.”


Closeups were typically rationed in classic Japanese cinema, and delivered with maximum impact, full of reverence for the uncanny allure of the human face. The seminal film version of Yotsuya Kaidan, Nakagawa Nobua’s 1959 version, exploits this superbly in the seconds when the samurai’s poisoned wife scrabbles for a mirror to examine her ravaged features. Ring follows in these footsteps, and also plays this coy game of revelation, pressing itself right up to Sadako and finally exposing just a rage-filled eye. She was kitted out in as if to the kaidan born: the white dress and matted curtains of black hair hiding her face were drawn straight from vintage yurei like the one in the Yotsuya Kaidan. “We tried very hard, as a team, to find the scariest images, and to the Japanese, the long, black hair of a woman has almost supernatural connotations,” says Nakata. Her locks hung dank with the weight of all the callous samurai and mistreated females of Japanese folklore.


The presiding malaise pressed in heavily with Nakata’s cautious accumulation of long takes and medium-range shots, with few of the showy flourishes MTV-schooled directors of his generation were prone to. Reiko’s desperation percolates gradually, or registers in near-subliminal touches, like when Ryuji’s student mischievously marks a minus symbol on his chalkboard calculations, Nakata perhaps signposting the “aesthetics of subtraction” he later told journalists about. By the time Reiko and Ryuji are scrabbling underneath the cabin where she first watches the video to find the well, despair seems to suffuse everything. It’s as much a part of the natural order as the dark, churning seascape with which the film opens.


The first icon of supernatural cinema since Freddy Krueger … Ring’s Sadako


As per the new emphasis on atmosphere over attention-seeking, sound played a vital part. “I tend to stress long intervals [of silence] in my tracks,” says Nakata, “Other people tend to use different sounds all together to express horror, but I increase the perception of it to the maximum by utilising a very quiet sound.” Ring uses the audible with deadly minimalist precision, often synchronised with the characters’ thoughts. In the opening scene, the clock tick kicks in when the phone rings, and then continues underneath the dialogue to underscore the tension; its oddly scratchy treatment is reminiscent of a sound one of them is fated to hear minutes later — that of Sadako’s fingernails rasping the floor. The prolific composer Kawai Kenji (Ghost in the Shell) spirited up a superb soundtrack, a combination of plangent melodies and digitally mangled discord.


At the appointed hour for Ryuji’s death — the morning of September 21 in the film — it was 30-year-old kabuki actress Inou Rie who crawled out through the TV screen, or, rather, crawled in. On set, she walked in reverse towards the well, in the contorted fashion of neo-kabuki; Nakata simply ran the film backwards — the oldest trick in the book — so Inou’s harpy appears to be lurching inexorably towards her victim. It was the killer blow the book had lacked, a crescendo of terror to match Nosferatu’s silhouetted fingernails or an electrified Frankenstein; Nakata had succeeded in creating the first true icon of supernatural cinema since Freddy Krueger.


But he couldn’t know that at the time, and blind optimism wasn’t the director’s style: “I absolutely did not expect the success of Ring. I was very worried when it was released in Japan that it could ever gain enough money to cover its production costs.” The film broke through into our dimension on 31 January 1998, on a double release with its sequel, Rasen. Asmik Ace thought packaging the two together would make for a box-office bonanza. They handed directing duties on Rasen to Iida Jôji, who had worked on the script for Ring’s TV incarnation, when Nakata and Takahashi Hiroshi realised they would be unable to finish both films in the allotted time. Their surgical attitude to the source material showed up Iida’s laborious treatment and lumpen exposition.


Both films were cold-shouldered by the Japanese press. No national newspaper reviewed them, distracted by the sight of Demi Moore in fatigues in GI Jane instead. Of the main cinema magazines, only Kinema Junpo stirred into action, patting Ring on the back as a “pretty good job, given the not-so-perfect production circumstances” en route to giving Rasen a lengthy pasting. The lack of interest was a snapshot of the stultified place the 1990s Japanese film industry was in — the nationals published only one review a week, usually of a major Hollywood release — and perhaps also of the fact that horror simply wasn’t seen as the kind of genre to associate with.


Nakata would have been freaking out, were it not for some grassroots research: “During the release, I went to five or six theatres, and saw kids calling each other on their cell phones right after the screening, telling their friends how scary the film was and to go see it. I was really pleased to see all this self-marketing going on between the kids.” He also noted that the audience was full of young female students, perhaps the same ones who enjoyed being scared stiffless as teenagers by Tsuruta Norio’s original Honto ni Atta Kowai Hanashi. It suggested that horror films were breaking through into a whole new constituency.


The word-of-mouth effect was very appropriate: the whole hexed videotape thing had (according to Ring’s PR people, at least) been a real high-school rumour. No one was whispering about Rasen, but Ring caught fire — it quickly became the highest grossing horror film in Japanese history, eventually taking $6.6m (sales of the novel also tripled from 500,000 to 1.5m). It was a drop in the box-office ocean compared to, say, I Know What You Did Last Summer, which was busy moving past the $70m mark during the same period in the US, but it was an solid taking for a genre film in Japan.


Tsuruta Norio was a little taken aback. “When I saw it, honestly speaking, I thought, ‘This looks exactly like what I have been doing!’, and it was a real shock. It was really exactly like what I had done in V-cinema, right down to Sadako’s way of moving. But I was in a kind of retirement from directing, so I thought, ‘Oh well…’” Nakata didn’t have time to congratulate himself; a sequel inevitably went into turnaround straight away, with him at the helm and under Ichise Takashige’s stewardship. Choosing to make as if Rasen had never existed, the Asmik Ace and Kadakawa Shoten decided to tap into yurei fever and the urban-legend starting point of the Ringu mythology by starting a competition for the public to come up with a haunting new plotline for the second film. Four hundred people submitted scripts, but none were sufficiently up to scratch. Nakata and Takahashi Hiroshi had to knuckle down once more to extend the Sadako mythos, and they didn’t have much time: Ring 2 was scheduled for release just 18 months after the first film.


The most unlikely of men had found himself, a bit uncomfortably, at the head of Japan’s horror boom. Nakata had capably blended western and Japanese influences — but there was something new and unique about Ring, a chill that seeped into the slew of imitators to come. The yurei of the golden-age film kaidan were comprehensible; propitiable forces waiting for earthly attention, wrongs to be righted in a universe run according to moral precepts. Sadako, as Ryuji fatally learns, cannot be appeased — just replicated. Copying the videotape saves Reiko’s son’s life at the cost of her father’s. Steeped in guilt towards modernity, Ring was an analogue fall-from-grace parable for a world on the cusp of the digital era; it was, Nakata said, the revenge of the image. Ichise Takashige summed up the new nihilism: “The world isn’t the same as when The Exorcist and The Omen launched a horror boom. Back then, people thought the future would bring something good. Hardly anyone now still believes the future will make everyone happier and better off. Horror reflects that mood.” Of course, if you were in the nihilism business, the future was suddenly looking like a pretty fruitful place.


Ring 2 came out bang on schedule on 27 July 1999, and eclipsed the original, at least at the box office. Released on a double bill with the passable supernatural thriller Shikoku, it grossed an impressive $28m. But perhaps Asmik Ace should have gone with the entrants of the screenplay competition: the sequel was a poorly paced, overstuffed affair. Nakata and Takahashi had shown a weakness in Ring for using characters’ clairvoyancy as a handy means of exposition; every other person in the sequel seemed to be psychic. The screenwriter later declared that he hated the film, and that Nakata wasn’t a natural horror director. (xxviii) Nakata, for his part, had already turned down the offer of another Ring, and changed tack to the complex noir thriller Kaosu (1999, Chaos), starring Nakatani Miki, his lead in Ring 2.


Asmik Ace weren’t going to wait for him, not with everyone else scrambling to make the next Ring. A horror cottage industry was springing up. Manga was often raided for source material: maestro of the bizarre Ito Junji’s works were the starting point for adaptations of Tomie and Uzumaki. The first, with a ready-made star turn for another demonic teen, eventually ran to seven films. The derivative Saimin (1999, Hypnosis) shamelessly shoehorned a Sadako-style ghost into a knockoff of Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s proto-J-horror Kyua. Kurosawa himself moved on a typically idiosyncratic tangent, keeping in step with developments with 1999’s unsettling Kourei: Ushirowo Miruna (Séance), before taking the technological affiliations of Ring for a plot homing on webcams and the internet, and turning out the glacially paced but transfixing Kairo. Norio Tsuruta, meanwhile, finally got his dues when he was asked to replace Nakata as director on the prequel Ring 0: Birthday.


A still from the manga Uzumaki, by Ito Junji


The formidably energetic Ichise Takashige positioned himself at the centre of this paranormal frenzy: he seemed happy to follow the genre-film money trail, when Ring’s other producers diversified into more respectable endeavours. He cherrypicked the 27-year-old Shimizu Takashi to develop characters from the TV series Gakkô no Kaidan into what became the Ju-On franchise; long black hair and the ministry of creepy walks were in full effect.


Whether it was Sadako or Ichise holding sway, Ring’s influence was beginning to spread beyond Japan by 1999. It was released on video in Brazil, home to the biggest expat Japanese population, in 1998; then Hong Kong and Singapore in April and August 1999 respectively. A Korean remake of the first film, Ring Virus, had already come out in June. The original was filtering out further on pirate VCD, a precursor of DVD that was a suitably illicit mode of dissemination for this dark Japanese horror treat. It didn’t play the classy festivals like Cannes and Venice, but it bowled over the geek contingent. Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival broke Ring in North America. Word had begun to spread a few days before a rapt crowd of 2,000 at the crumbling Imperial Theatre were transfixed by it, with Nakata in attendance. It took Best Asian Film there, as well as the top awards at both the Brussels International Festival of Fantastic Film and the Sitges Fantasy Film Festival. The secret was officially out: a year later, when Ring 2 screened at Fantasia, two devotees stood up with towels on their heads and pointed accusingly at Nakata — a tribute taken from the cursed video.


Sadako was replicating herself—in the cuddliest possible way. There were Ring theme park rides, and Sadako plush toys. Even if you believed Ring’s insinuation that the modern entertainment industry was a malignant force, it wasn’t going to stop anyway. Nothing made that more clear than its Japanese arm, renowned for its particularly relentless nature. Its film market was the second largest in the world behind the US; it needed a constant supply of fresh product. The country produced less feature films than Hollywood (270 features were released in 1999, next to the US’s 478), but what it couldn’t import from over the Pacific, it made up from the ever-busy V-cinema bracket. Budgets in general were much lower than in America, and the film-making inclined towards the fast and furious.


Ninja whirlwind’ … Miike Takashi


It’s striking how many of the Japanese directors coming to prominence at the turn of the millennium had been through the rough’n’ready training ground of the V-cinema circuit or pinku quickies. It was an exhausting apprenticeship, but one that, if it didn’t break you, was the proverbial mother of invention.


Perhaps the hardiest product of this intensely competitive ecosystem was Miike Takashi. If Nakata Hideo was a melancholic roving directorial ronin, Miike was a full-blown ninja whirlwind. A year older than Nakata, he had already directed over 30 films by the late 90s, mostly on the V-cinema circuit. And he was just getting warmed up. When he began to switch over to full theatrical features, after 1995’s Shinjuku Kuroshakai — China Mafia Senso (Shinjuku Triad Society), he upped his work rate to four or five films a year. Miike got his head shaved every January because he knew he’d be too busy to have his hair cut later; I’ll have long hair next time you see me, he’d tell people.


He said that he worked so ferociously because he needed to feed his family on the none-too-handsome pay of a jobbing Japanese director, and maintained he maintained he was just “an arranger, not an author”. This was a piece of down-to-earth Osakan bluff (Miike was born in Japan’s third city, known for its iconoclasts). There was much more going on in his films: a kind of furious masochistic relish that fuelled his high-octane creative process and which sometimes cropped up in his films. No one who had seen the six-minute opening montage of his 1999 gangster thriller Dead or Alive — a spasmodic sex, food, drugs and rock’n’roll rampage through Tokyo’s red-light district — could doubt this was a man with something to say.


From yakuza flicks to pop thrillers to nostalgic childhood dramas, Miike thrived on stretching the limits of his chosen genres, often testing them to destruction point with bizarre characterisation, manic stylistic bursts and taboo themes. “I like to break my own common sense. It would get broken naturally anyway, so I’d rather break it myself,” he explains. He did more than anyone to seed the horror boom, as word spread abroad, with a reputation for extremity and perversity, and reawaken prurient western interest in the sadistic outer reaches of Japanese culture. And he did it mostly with one film: Audition.


Like Ring, it also picked at a sinister splinter lodged deep in modern ennui. Miike was called in to direct Audition by new film production outfit Omega Project, who had had a hand in Ring and Rasen. The company had formerly specialised in vibrating chairs and other “Bodysonic” technology, before being repurposed as an investment vehicle to help revive Japan’s international film prospects. In its poky offices in the capital’s creative district Shibuya, it was just the kind of interchangeable business environment Murakami Ryu had had in mind when he wrote the original 1997 novel, Odishon. The story was about a widowed fortysomething film executive living a neutered existence, who decides to hold a fake casting call for a movie that doesn’t exist, in order to find a suitably pliant wife; Murakami, who had directed four films himself, was drawing on his own experience of the development demi-monde, in particular the casting-couch dilemma: “All these girls were young and pretty. And I thought, ‘How great if these auditions were not for the movies, but for a girlfriend or wife.’ Though if you do that kind of stuff, we say in Japan: Bachi ga ataru. It would be bad karma to do that. Something bad would happen to you.”


‘Bad karma’ … Ishibashi Ryo interviews for a wife in Audition


Miike suggested Tengan Daisuke for the adaptation; the latter was the eldest son of two-time Palme d’Or-winner Imamura Shohei, with whom Miike served an apprenticeship as assistant director in the 80s. Miike had enrolled at Imamura’s film school as an 18-year-old when he learned that there were no entrance exams; it seemed like the easy option, a way of escaping his parents’ home in Osaka, after his failure to make good on his teenage dreams of becoming a motorbike racer. He wasn’t, he claims, a very good student, and not particularly close to Imamura: “He had this way of looking at me, like: "Why are you here?" The sensei, at any rate, never introduced him to his son; Miike and Tengan met later at a New Year’s Eve party. Tengan had written his father’s disturbing Cannes winner Unagi (1997, The Eel), and before becoming a screenwriter, had put in a 10-year stint as a salaryman at a publishing company; the perfect man, in other words, to lead Audition’s descent from corporate purgatory to grand-guignol hell.


Miike’s opening moves on the project were in his usual subversive vein. He went to see Ryu Murakami to see if he had any feelings about the direction the adaptation should take. What the novelist interpreted as “shyness” was in fact poker face on Miike’s part: “In the beginning, Murakami had a lot of ideas, a lot of opinions about how it should be made. Since it was his story, his baby, but also because he’s a director, too, I pretended to listen.” 


It was lucky Miike had been taken with Odishon on first reading, impressed and even frightened by the manner in which it moved stealthily from realism — as the film executive Aoyama romances the apparently perfect ex-ballerina Asami — into pitch-black territory. He suspected Murakami of having more personal involvement in the story than he was letting on: “Here’s my take on it. I think that he experienced in his life a fear similar to what Aoyama was feeling [ie being over the hill]. He was making many films at that time and had many auditions. I don’t think he met anyone like Asami, but he probably met someone, and in meeting that person, something strange happened. I felt like this story could be like a personal message to that person: ‘I still love you.’ Pretty unfair form of communication, by the way."


But fundamentally, he was touched by the story’s moral candidness, its unsentimental clarity about a man whose desires lead him to disaster. The adaptation turned out surprisingly faithful — not something Murakami could have expected from previous Miike films. The director had been prone to truculence with people whose motives he found suspect in the past: on Dead or Alive, he made many unapproved changes to the script when he realised money was as far the production company’s aspirations went. In novel form, Odishon already gave Miike and Tengan license to break more adventurous ground. Not only was its bi-cameral structure set up to ambush the audience, but it was a horror story without any hint of the in-vogue supernatural. “When I accepted the job, there were a lot of Japanese horror movies being made,” says Tengan, “I remember Miike told me there no sense in making another one. Neither of us specialised in doing horror movies, so we knew right away we’d have a different approach.” 


Tengan had free rein with changes, but restricted himself to one major innovation. He had hit a wall trying to drive the sadistic climax with conventional pace-driven techniques, so he stopped writing for two or three days — which was when he had the idea of playing with time. Instead of simply cataloguing Aoyama’s ordeal at Asami’s hands, the final part takes place in a series of interlaced flashbacks: the initial one to the pair’s second date. But the conversation is different to that previously shown — Asami confesses far more about her abused past, and Aoyama’s dead wife stares ominously on. It’s unclear whether these scenes are a continuation of what actually happened, or Aoyama’s narcotised, guilt-ridden fantasy of how things should have played out.


Tengan thought of the ploy in terms of an Asami-like domination: “Sitting in a theatre, you’re sharing time with others. You’re forced to share that time… Sometimes it’s slow and sometimes it’s fast, and I wanted to control how that felt.” It was a cruel, destabilising knife-twist in the flesh of Murakami’s story: it’s no longer certain which perspective is correct, leaving behind an unresolvable matrix of individual desires. Either Aoyama’s desire for a frank union of selves is doomed from the moment he cooked up his bogus audition — or Audition has established a world in which such unions are de facto impossible. Paradoxically, it’s the unknowable Asami who offers up the film’s one solid truth: “Words create lies. Pain can be trusted.”


The director admitted that he didn’t understand the finale either, but Auditionwasn’t exactly turning out to be the average Miike film (as if such a thing were possible). It was his first feature shot specifically for theatrical release, and he ended shooting almost every line written by Tengan. The material itself called for self-restraint. The bulk of the story, a breezy courtship between the couple that verged on melodrama, needed to be innocuously shot and slackly paced to set up the ultimate shock. “It absolutely needs time,” says Miike, “The waiting increases the tension. The waiting itself is seeking something. The actors have to wait, and the viewers have the same experience.”


Audition was unusual in one last respect for him, too. Many of his early works had been from the margins of Japanese society looking in: working-class Osakans, gay yakuza, Chinese immigrants and war orphans were among the flotsam who populated his early works. He had direct links to the last set: his grandmother was one of the zanyru koji generation of Japanese who had been left to fend for themselves in China after the second world war defeat, and who later had to fight for official recognition from the Japanese government. His father was born in Seoul, and later settled in Osaka’s Yao prefecture, where many Korean immigrants also settled. “I don’t particularly care to research my family background, but something of their experience is in my genes,” says Miike, “And that’s why I always deal with characters who are floating and who don’t have a place to call home.”


His familiar issues of belonging and family were certainly in the air in Audition. But, rooted fast to the disaffected executive Aoyama, this was a rare instance of a Miike Takashi film from the perspective of mainstream Japanese society looking out. What it saw in the darkness was less certain. Miike later strenuously denied the film was meant as a kind of reckoning for Japanese society, and the state-of-the-nation addresses that feature in Murakami’s novel were gone. But there were jaded gibes in the script — “The whole of Japan is lonely”, “Japan is finished” — that felt like they were aimed at the country’s post-bubble impotence. And the director himself wasn’t above occasionally stoking the film’s final-act havoc with greater meaning: “These days we are all living pretty close to the margins. People think that their lives are on an even keel, but we have killed all our former hopes, and that means underneath the stress is building up.”


The serene façade under which all this rage would be building belonged to 23-year-old newcomer Shiina Eihi. A Benetton model with only one small acting credit to her name, she grabbed Miike’s attention for the role of Asami at a more salubrious kind of audition — though still an unorthodox one. A film nut whose father had owned a video-rental shop, she claimed to have had an eye on Miike since watching his 1998 yakuza film Blues Harp. Like Asami, she turned for the casting call with no real interest in the film: “I didn’t go to get the part. Seriously. I wanted to meet and talk to Miike.” He quizzed her about her views on male-female relationships; after a couple of hours, his staff had to tell him to break it off. He came away struck by her “mysterious” quality — an unfeigned aloofness that set her apart from the 10 other actresses on the shortlist. “It was kind of her true colour,” says Miike, “We wanted to bring that feeling, as it was, into the film.” 


‘A good part’ … Ohsugi Ren, in the sack, with Shiina Eihi


Forty-three-year-old Ishibashi Ryo had the crumpled matinee-idol looks and was chosen for Aoyama‘s part. A former musician sick of being typecast as a musician, he had begun to look for more challenging parts that would launch him internationally (he later appeared in Kitano Takeshi’s US crossover Brother, and the Hollywood remakes of Ju-On). Elsewhere, Miike filled small but eye-catching roles with old colleagues, though not without his sense of mischief. Ohsugi Ren — a well-known face from Kitano’s films, as well as Miike’s — was rendered unrecognisable as the tongue-less unfortunate Asami keeps in a sack in her flat; he had foolishly agreed to Miike’s offer of a “good” part without reading the script. Ishibashi Renji, another ubiquitous character actor from the Japanese casting repertoire, had a better idea of what he was letting himself in for. “I don’t think I will ever turn down one of [Miike’s] offers. He loves destroying me, so I have to love being destroyed,” Ishibashi says of the director who refers to him as his “toy”. His role in Audition was of the paedophile ballet teacher given a rather over-zealous garrotting. After filming, Miike made a present to the actor of his own decapitated head (or at least a cast of it).


The director was manufacturing ways to indulge his penchant for creative destruction — needling his cast to get the best out of them. His filming schedule ensured the same would be true of his crew: slotted into a 1999 in which he shot six other movies, Audition had a scant three weeks, “one more than usual”. The high-wire environment of the V-cinema circuit bred an ethic of strict personal responsibility on Miike’s sets. Hamish McAlpine, then owner of the UK’s Metro Tartan films, was stunned by this on a trip to see the shoot for 2004’s Zebraman: “I said to him in the first break, ‘You must have worked with this cameraman a million times before, because you never look at the monitor once during the whole of the tape to check what was being filmed. You must have a symbiotic relationship’ He said, ‘No, I never worked with him before in my life.’ I said, ‘I don’t get this: you only do one take. Don’t you like to do a second for a safety shot?’ ‘No, it’s not necessary. If people fuck up, they know they will be fired, and it’s much cheaper just to instil fear in people, and to make sure they need to get it right once. If I know they’ll put their heart and soul in just that one time, that’s where the energy comes from in my films."


Even more than the rest of the crew, Shiina Eihi was completely left to her own initiative by Miike, as if he didn’t want to taint her aura: “We didn’t try to understand her, and she didn’t try to ask us anything. That was our relationship.” He had settled on her unswayable “consistency” as the key to portraying Asami and opening up the kernel of the film: the theme of whether happiness is truly possible. When Asami tortures Aoyama, it is a terrifying act of love, a demand that he make good on her plea to, “Please love me. Only me.” It’s the kind of affirmation that everyone seeking love is after, which — because of her sexually abused past — she takes to the point of emotional totalitarianism. Not many people serve their mutilated lover a bowl of vomit for dinner (corroborating Miike’s ideas about her, Shiina insisted on providing this herself for filming purposes).


One of the most infamous scenes in cinema … the climax of Audition


Audition filmed on location around Tokyo, but mostly in a family house — doubling for Aoyama’s place — that the crew had come across in the upscale residential suburb of Denenchofu. Sir Ebenezer Howard, the 19th-century English proponent of garden cities upon whose blueprint the area was based, probably didn’t have the final 20 minutes of Audition in mind when it came to healthy living. What became one of the infamous scenes in cinema history took just over a day of uninterrupted filming. Miike didn’t want to break at such a crucial juncture, and as the shoot hit the small hours, the mood became weirdly elevated, “like when you were a kid, and you were really tired at night, wasn’t it fun to stay awake because your parents had told you not to?”


The script, mindful of not being slapped with an 18 certificate, had omitted the part in the novel when Asami severs Aoyama’s foot. “It developed that Asami’s character [in the film] was such that she might go that far, so we changed the script,” says Miike, “If Shiina had been a different type, we might not have gone that far. It escalated, like in real life.” The actress, resplendent for her sadistic coup de grace in fetish-style, elbow-length black rubber gloves and apron, had come to exert an influence over the entire project.


Miike kept his shots restrained and suggestive, for instance cutting away (he edited in-camera, like most Japanese directors) before Asami inserts the acupuncture needles into Aoyama’s vitreous jelly. In the final version, Shibazaki Kenji’s superb sound design carries most of the burden of terror, the high-tensile creak of the cutting wire especially unforgettable. The camera’s gaze, like Aoyama’s, was kept fixed on Shiina, who seemed to be effortlessly adding devastating curlicues to her performance: her soothing (and improvised) “Kiri-kiri-kiri” as she applies the needles, and the air of petrifying levity that gave the scene its glaze of black humour. Miike was quick to credit her: “This is not me directing the scene. The expression [of glee] as she was cutting off the leg was totally her doing. It’s an incredible performance, I think. Not even a performance. She totally became Asami.”


Miike, strangely given his penchant for surrounding himself with familiar collaborators, hasn’t worked with Shiina since — a case of a singular part for a singular girl. Ten years later, recording the audio commentary for a special-edition release of Audition, he admitted he knew her no better after the shoot than before. And with his log-jammed schedule, it was already time to move on.


The film hung around for about as long as Miike. Released on 3 March 2000, it only played at Tokyo’s two-screen Shibuya Cine Palace. But Urasaki Hiromi, writing for Kinema Junpo, was startled by this package: “It was as if I was holding an egg, expecting a chick to hatch out of it, but what poked its head was a python instead.” He was unsure about how to interpret Asami’s sadism, first comparing her vengeance to Fatal Attraction, then deciding again. “Maybe the film is close to Alien. So Audition is about a woman who has been dominated by men since childhood, and her unconscious develops into a monster-like ‘alien’, making her attack the most ordinary of men she comes across.” Yomiuri Shimbun, a national paper, was quietly approving: “Rather than relying on over-the-top acting or sound effects, Miike successfully depicts the heroine’s relentless cruelty through his sharp directing style.” But with little marketing and Miike still largely unknown in his native country, the praise made little difference. The film sank without trace.


Indifference would have been the most perverse of receptions for a film like Audition. As it hit the international festival circuit, though, it started to become clear that the opposite kind of fate awaited it — one that would be the making of Miike as renegade auteur. It premiered at Vancouver film festival on 6 October 1999, but it was a screening at Rotterdam film festival three months later that earned Audition a street rep. On 28 January, one woman in the audience walked out as Asami was administering her brutal foreplay, hissing “You’re evil!” at the director. Several people started clapping as she climbed the stairs, which Miike took as a declaration of solidarity, as if they were saying, “You’re sick! You’re one of us.” (liii) You were either a Miike person, or you weren’t; Rotterdam’s Fipresci jury, who gave Audition their prize, were in the former camp. Walkouts during the final act became de rigueur at film festivals.


By the time North American distribution was looking likely in 2001, Miike’s promotion people were playing up the notoriety factor: they distributed self-assembly sick-bags for the film’s appearance at the Toronto festival.

Audition became an indelible calling card for the director in the west, combining circumspect shot-making that would attract the arthouse crowd with a grand-guignol flourish that both guaranteed a wider audience and was a taste of the real Miike: the wild personality that had already run riot in several dozen V-cinema releases.


The legend of this maniacal celluloid personality had been abroad among western cineastes for a couple of years: the influential critic and film programmer Tony Rayns had presented Shinjuku Kuroshakai — China Mafia Senso at the Vancouver film festival in 1997, and devoted a sub-section to the director’s work there a year later. But Audition became Miike’s first theatrical release abroad, first opening in the UK on 16 March 2001, just a year after its domestic debut. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “an intricate torture garden of a film, lovingly maintained and manicured … not a horror film exactly, nor thriller, nor even art house drama — more a cinema of cruelty whose flourishes are opaque, enigmatic and deeply unsettling”. Some, like the Daily Mail’s Christopher Tookey, took the predictable line: “Auditionmarks a new low in cinematic torture and amputation, allowed by the censors presumably because the sick acts of violence are carried out by a woman, and in a foreign language. So that’s all right, then. Or is it?” 


Where Tookey saw a glib alibi, others saw a manifesto. The notion of the film as a feminist statement, with Asami terrorising Japanese patriarchy, was one that Miike encountered a lot when he did press interviews in Europe. “In London and Paris, there were all these female reporters. They said I was a feminist. They thought, ‘Hey, she’s getting revenge on all these womanisers.’ In New York, I was told by male and female reporters that I was the devil. I was, like, ‘Really?’ I wanted to say: ‘Asami is the devil in this, not me.’” The director seems to have carefully played the odds; in other interviews, he admits that the battle of the sexes in Japan did have some relevance. “Deep down, men still want to be in control,” he says. “Women rebel against this — they find jobs and are independent. This has been going on for a long time, but more is needed: the question is whether this form of existence leads to happiness.”


The ambassador for transgression … Miike Takashi in Eli Roth’s Hostel


The film didn’t break into the mainstream in box-office terms, but it proved highly influential for the reception of eastern cinema in the west, a kind of flagship for its perceived excesses. Hamish McAlpine, who distributed Audition in the UK, later concocted the Asia Extreme branding for the many similar titles he imported. He admits that he was playing into a kind of orientalist fever for taboo-flouting material: “Very much so. We spent a lot of money on creating Asia Extreme as a brand, and it worked really well with the public. It almost became the generic.” (lviii) Miike, always splendidly impassive in his regulation shades at film festivals, became high ambassador for transgression, inspiring the next generation of western horror, the so-called “torture porn” directors: Eli Roth cast him in a cameo as one of the amoral tourists who pay to murder backpackers in his 2004 film Hostel.


“Extreme” was established early as the keynote for foreign interest in Asian cinema, even though it wasn’t an accurate description for the ghost stories, including Ring, that were bundled in under this banner during the noughties (Park Chan-wook couldn‘t have too many complaints with his Vengeance trilogy, though.) But it tapped into a long history, in Japan’s case, of fiction with a lurid edge, whether that was violence, sex, or some combination of both — from Hokusai’s octopus-rape woodcut Tako To Amo (The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife) through to Ai No Corrida (In The Realm of the Senses). There was also a history, almost as lengthy, of salacious European interest in the “Orient” that produced dark works like Octave Mirbeau’s 1899 novel Le Jardin des Supplices (The Torture Garden). “The Japanese have always had an obsession with the dark side of human behaviour,” says McAlpine, “They just like sex and violence. But, hey, so do most westerners! Maybe the Japanese have slightly more sadistic tastes. [At the end of the 90s] Hollywood was PG-ing all its horror films, so it was great to have this dark antidote coming from the east.”


Audition went further than most, and so its appeal was limited: it had to wait for DVD to secure its following. Ring, purpose-built for the mainstream, continued building its global fanbase. Sales in Finland, Norway and the UK — where it consolidated its cult hold with a five-week run at the influential ICA cinema in London — followed in 2000. The British press stayed aloof of the growing buzz, with mostly lukewarm reactions. “It brings to mind the first hour of Lost Highway,” said the Observer’s Philip French, “But lacks the haunting power of David Lynch’s film.” Ekow Eshun, in the Independent, called it “a plausibly unsettling urban myth that resonates beyond the confines of cinema”. Only James Christopher, in the Times, was held firm in Sadako’s grip: “However ludicrous the story may sound, the havoc it plays with your senses is almost magical.”


Ironically, back in Japan, the horror boom had begun to lose the fear factor. Attics with bad feng shui, spirit-infested tech and what later got lampooned on the internet as “dead wet girls” had all become strip-mined tropes, and audiences were getting fatigues. The double-bill format was being used to launch any old horror fare — mostly the lowest-common-denominator blood-drenched variety. The market was saturated, and there were high-profile box-office failures: the serial-killer film Anazahevun (2000, Another Heaven), by Rasen director Joji Iida; and in 2001, the small-town ghost story Inugami, the videogame-themed Otogiriso (St John’s Wort) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo. Japanese producers began to give any shuffling phantoms in white smocks a wide berth.


Arthouse edge … Kairo, by Kurosawa Kiyoshi


Inugami director Harada Masato admitted that he’d bombed at home because his eye had been elsewhere: “For me, this film was for the overseas audience, to reach the Berlin film festival and maybe launch a more international film career. So I didn’t pay much attention to how they promoted the film in Japan, but I cared for overseas posters, every visual image.” On paper Kairohad appeared to be very much in the established techno-horror mould, but Kurosawa’s odd, glacial pacing and high-grade cinematography gave the film an arthouse edge, as if its real intended audience was also the international festival one.


Despite the movement petering out commercially, it had a greater resonance for Japanese society at large. This clammy new horror sweated out all the country’s anxieties on the cusp of the millennium: the strangehold of technology, family disintegration, social alienation, the relationship to national custom and tradition. The purge was unbearably acute in Audition. Miike’s bent for creative destruction seemed to bring a glint to everyone’s eye, allowing them to reach down deeper. Violence, sadism and trauma, in the film, were the keys to a merciless self-revelation — they certainly had been for the cast. Maybe a kind of shock therapy, with Audition the highest setting, was what the Japanese horror boom had been about all along.


And by being so completely themselves, so seductively Japanese, Ring and Audition became universal. As Miike put it: “We rented a regular house, we shot in Japan — and it [Audition] was accepted the world over just as it was.” Late capitalist societies everywhere, after all, shared similar problems. There was a lesson for America and Hollywood there: on the importance of reflecting truthfully on dark insecurities, and the possibility of rejuvenating your culture in the process. But that was the hard road — why do it yourself when you could buy it in? After Ring’s rabid reception in ’99 at Fantasia, remake rights was optioned on the spot by Fine Line Features, New Line Cinema’s specialty division. Eastern audiences might have tired of these modern-day campfire tales, but greater forces were sizing them up for export, remake and branding potential. Japanese horror was dead; “J-horror” was opening up its foetid lungs and getting ready to scream.


© 2019 by Phil Hoad. All rights reserved.