Audition

Title: Audition
Japanese Title: オーディション (Ōdishon)
Author: Murakami Ryū (村上龍)
Translator: Ralph McCarthy
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1997 (Japan)
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 191

The first order of business in any review of Audition should be to spoil the plot. (If you don’t want to know what happens, don’t read this review. Don’t look at the front cover of the book, either.) My justification for giving everything away is that the ending of this book lends such a delicious flavor to the rest of the story that trying to keep it a secret is pointless, and probably fairly cruel as well.

With that in mind, the premise of Audition is as follows: a middle-aged producer named Aoyama is looking to re-marry after his son mentions that Aoyama’s wife, Ryoko, died seven years ago and that it’s time for him to move on. Since Ryoko was such a wonderful woman, and since Aoyama is more or less satisfied with his current life, however, his standards in women are high. Aoyama’s friend and fellow producer Yoshikawa suggests that Aoyama interview prospective brides as part of a film audition tailored to his specifications. Aoyama reluctantly agrees and ends up meeting Yamasaki Asami, a beautiful 24-year-old woman who seems perfect in every way. Yoshikawa is suspicious of Asami, but Aoyama has fallen head-over-heels in love with her and will have no one else. It turns out that Yoshikawa has every reason to be suspicious, since Asami has a bad habit of drugging and torturing her boyfriends who cannot love only her. Does this include the sincere and good-intentioned Aoyama? You bet it does. The final thirty pages of Audition are a torture-fest graphic enough to test even the most strong-stomached of readers, even as they delightfully revel in the violence and subtle sexuality of the scene.

I generally find comparisons between books and movies to be boring and pointless, but director Miike Takashi’s 1999 adaptation of Audition is such a cult classic that I feel it should be mentioned. Is the novel different from the movie? Of course it is. It goes without saying that certain plot elements are different, but perhaps the most interesting difference is that, while the film focuses on the back story of Asami, the novel pays much more attention to Aoyama. Thus, the horrifically grotesque images associated with Asami’s apartment are missing from the novel. Instead, the reader is party to Aoyama’s absolute fixation with Asami in a brilliant parody of the genre of romance. For example, Murakami describes Aoyama seeing Asami in person for the first time as an amazing, magical moment:

Silhouetted against the off-white walls, she walked to the chair, bowed with modest grace, and sat down. That was all, but Aoyama had a very distinct sensation that something extraordinary was happening all around him. It was like being the millionth visitor to an amusement park, suddenly bathed in spotlights and a rain of balloons and surrounded by microphones and flashing cameras. As if luck, normally dispersed in billions of tiny, free-floating, gemlike particles, had suddenly coalesced in a single beatific vision – a vision that changed everything, forever.

Oh, Aoyama, if only you knew! The dramatic irony of passages like this is superb, and there are a lot of them to enjoy, each one more imaginatively written than the next. Also, since the written word does not have quite the visual power of the silver screen, Asami’s sexuality and sex appeal are presented differently as well, again from the perspective of Aoyama. We never get to see her in knee-high boots and a black rubber apron, but her “hard, tender nipples” and “lust-crazed pussy” are mentioned more than a few times as the book approaches its climax, so to speak. In the end, though, the novel is infinitely less gut-wrenchingly visceral than the film. I think both the film and the novel are brilliant texts, but the novel is much more accessible to a broader audience.

(By the way, I am not kidding about how hideously upsetting the film is. If you have not seen Audition, don’t see Audition. I’m serious. It’s traumatizing. Read the book instead.)

Before I end this review, I’d like to briefly address the issue of the book’s sexism. Although the story may seem to reference the female revenge scenario, the fact that Asami is certifiably insane, as well as her presentation as utterly inhuman and her complete lack of interiority, cancel out any sort of argument for female agency or empowerment. The real case against patriarchal privilege is made through Aoyama. Although Aoyama seems like a decent guy in many ways, the underlying current of his thinking is undeniably sexist. Precisely because Aoyama comes off as such a nice guy, the critique of his sexism and the broad societal sexism that informs it is much more effective. In the book’s closing lines, Asami calls Aoyama a liar, and she is right, even if her words are unintelligible save when voiced by Aoyama’s son. Make no mistake, Audition is written from a completely male perspective, but the light it sheds on how sexism is tied to contemporary Japanese masculinity is interesting and invaluable.

The Story of a Single Woman

the-story-of-a-single-woman1

Title: The Story of a Single Woman
Japanese Title: 或る一人の女の話
Author: Uno Chiyo (宇野千代)
Translator: Rebecca Copeland
Publication Year: 1992 (America); 1971 (Japan)
Pages: 132

Translator Rebecca Copeland aptly remarks in her introduction to The Story of a Single Woman that this novella “is the Uno Chiyo story, the story she has told countless times before in earlier works.” Indeed, this semi-confessional narrative of love pursued against overwhelming societal resistance runs not just through Uno’s oeuvre but through the work of pre-bubble women writers in general, at least as it is portrayed in anthologies like Noriko Mizuta Lippet and Kyoko Iriye Selden’s Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction. What is special about The Story of a Single Woman, however, is how Uno is able to recount her narrative in a dashing and gallant narrative voice with a minimum of self-pity.

The novella’s heroine, Kazue, is born and grows up in a tiny mountain village named Takamori (not to be confused with the city on the island of Kyūshū) in the early twentieth century. Her mother dies when she is still an infant, and her father, a sake brewer of some renown, quickly remarries himself to a young woman. Oddly enough, it is not Kazue’s stepmother who harasses the child, but rather her father, who controls the family with an iron will and forces everyone to behave with perfect decorum, even as his fortunes decline. At the behest of her father, Kazue is married off to one of her cousins while still in her early teens; but, because her young husband is not yet interested in girls, Kazue walks back home and never looks back. When her father dies, she takes a job as a teacher in a larger town. Perhaps her newfound independence goes to her head, because she soon starts visiting a young male teacher at his residence, unchaperoned. The malicious gossip created by this affair forces Kazue to resign her job. She retaliates by moving to the newly colonized state of Korea to launch a career as a journalist.

This is merely the start of Kazue’s amorous adventures. Throughout the novel, she is brave and cheerful and never defeated, even though her many lovers, who also must yield to the social constraints of the time, abandon her one after the other. Scattered throughout the account of Kazue’s attempts to establish herself as a serious author while following her heart from one relationship to the next are vivid and lovely descriptions of life in the Japanese countryside and cities that would be forever shattered by the Pacific War and its legacy.

Overall, The Story of a Single Woman is a quick and enjoyable read. Even though its tone carries the somewhat Victorian literary flavor of the immediate postwar period, it manages to be quite erotic at times. Very occasionally, it’s also laugh-out-loud funny. What I found interesting about this book is that, although the real-life Uno Chiyo is infamous as a femme fatale, her literary avatar Kazue comes across mainly as a brave young woman who cannot help but suffer from her insistence on playing a man’s game in a man’s world. Although this story doesn’t have a happy ending (although I should add that it doesn’t have a sad ending, either), it is remarkably true to life and even a little uplifting in its honesty.