A few years back, when I was regular on the mildly disreputable basic-cable show Movie Club with John Ridley, the host shared the story of how Oliver Stone pressured him not to release the pulp thriller Stray Dogs until after U-Turn, its film adaptation, came out. Stone tried to delay publication because he didn't want it to ruin the ending of his movie. This struck Ridley as absurd. After all, no one complained that Margaret Mitchell spoiled Gone with the Wind by releasing the novel that inspired it.
There is a long, noble, and sometimes ignoble history of cinematic adaptations of popular novels, but the very overdue translation of Ryu Murakami's Audition is a rare case, in that it marks the stateside debut of a novel that will be read largely, if not exclusively, by fans of the film, directed by Takashi Miike, it inspired. These readers will be all too familiar with one of the more infamous endings in cult-film history. Stone would certainly approve of the ten-year lag time between the domestic release of Miike's shocker and the English translation of Murakami's novel.
This invites some pertinent questions. Is watching The Sixth Sense as satisfying once you know the dirty little secret of Bruce Willis's shrink? Does The Usual Suspects have the same pop if you know the true identity of Keyser S÷ze? More to the point, is it possible to still be rattled, thrilled, and horrified by Audition if you know just what the seemingly meek, fragile beauty at its core has in store for our milquetoast hero?
The answer, thankfully, is yes, as Audition depends less on the bracing nastiness of its final twist than on the skillful interplay of the horrific and the mundane. Murakami's slim, simply written novel concerns the sketchy machinations of filmmaker Aoyama, a gentle father in his early forties lingering in the long shadow of grief seven years after the death of his beloved wife, Ryoko. When his teenage son suggests he think about remarrying, Aoyama decides to listen to his best friend, Yoshikawa, and hold "auditions" for a new wife under the guise of seeking a leading lady for a film they never intend to make. The plan is as simple as it is morally dubious: Once he's found the perfect woman, Aoyama will woo her, then explain at the right moment that, tragically, funding for the film has fallen through.
By agreeing to this deception, Aoyama becomes complicit in his own downfall. He's doing the wrong things for the right reasons. It's clear from the outset that Aoyama's intentions are romantic rather than sexual, especially once he meets Yamasaki Asami, a former ballerina blessed and cursed with preternatural beauty and an ineffable air of sadness. Having met his impossible ideal, Aoyama devolves into a state of puppy-dog ardor. Even Aoyama's fantasies about Asami are romantic rather than sordid; he daydreams about moments of quiet connection and sublime contentment rather than sweaty, rapturous sex (though he certainly isn't averse to sweaty, rapturous sex, either).
Rapt infatuation warps Aoyama's myopic conception of Asami. He hoists her high onto a pedestal even in the face of ill omens and troubling portents: A kid in a wheelchair recoils at the very sight of her, Asami's music-world mentor is rumored to have died a horrible death, and Yoshikawa has serious reservations about an enigmatic new woman whose past is as elusive as a wisp of smoke. Aoyama and Asami maintain such a chaste and curiously asexual courtship that when the two finally consummate their relationship through fairly graphic hotel sex, it's nearly as jarring as the final violent lurch into visceral horror. Murakami's novel leads us from PG to R en route to a climax that sends the macabre tale reeling into the kind of blood-soaked terror that caused more delicate audience members to faint in theaters.
Murakami is not a subtle writer. He lays out the freshman-level psychology behind Asami's actions with all the ham-fisted literalness of the psychiatrist explaining how poor Norman Bates went a little batty after murdering his mother and her lover in Psycho. But if Audition skirts sexism, it's still enormously savvy about the roles class, age, social status, and gender play in romantic relationships, as well as about the queasy voyeurism and exploitation endemic to the entertainment industry.
If the beauty ultimately becomes a beast, it's in no small part because men who've abused their power have treated her monstrously. Murakami doesn't spare his romantic daydreamer of a hero, either: Even at the bloody, bitter end, Aoyama doesn't comprehend what he's done wrong. Early in the book, he says he doesn't want a bride "contaminated" by the entertainment industry, without realizing that he's the one doing the contaminating, that through his deception he's become a parasite, preying on the na´vetÚ and ambition of beautiful young women.
Even for audiences who've experienced Miike's film—it really is the kind of film that is experienced rather than merely seen—the novel's ending retains its shocking force, a force made unnerving because Murakami has laid the groundwork with such deceptive gentleness. Audition has the elegant simplicity of a Grimm's fairy tale and the traumatizing power of a nightmare.
Nathan Rabin is the head writer for the AV Club, the entertainment section of The Onion, and the author of The Big Rewind: A Memoir Brought to You by Pop Culture (Scribner, 2009).