Filler content going Japanese

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #9:-

Audition by Ryu Murakami
(Bloomsbury hardback, 200pp. £10)

This is the novel on which the famous J-horror film was based. It’s been a while since I gave that a look, but as far as I can recall Takashi Miike’s interpretation seems faithful to its source material, so if you’re familiar with the film don’t come to this expecting any surprises.

Seven years after the death of his cherished wife, documentary film maker Aoyama decides to remarry, but how to find a woman who will meet his exacting standards for a partner? Friend Yoshikawa suggests that they set up a shell game involving a possible film project for which a lead conforming to Aoyama’s criteria is required, and then audition the applicants and, crazy as this sounds, the project gets the green light. Aoyama knows who he wants from the very first, the beautiful Asami, a woman who trained as a ballerina before compelled by injury to give up dancing. Despite the misgivings of Yoshikawa and others in his circle, he presses ahead with the affair, and Asami appears to welcome his interest. There are puzzling circumstances, such as the fate of a man who was supposed to be her mentor and the absence of any family, but Aoyama either makes up explanations for himself or believes those of Asami, who tells him a tale of family neglect and abuse. It is only when they go away together that the full truth emerges, and Aoyama realises that he has invited a madwoman into his life.

I’m in two minds here about the central conceit. On the one hand the premise of the audition itself does seem slightly far fetched (haven’t these guys heard of speed dating or internet matchmaking?), but on the other, in the age of reality TV, there’s something appealing about the idea of a show being used as a front for getting dates (‘How Do You Find a Girl Like Asami?’). All reservations aside, this is a superbly creepy little story, tautly written with hardly a word wasted.

The affair between the two leads is perfectly mapped out, with each detail finely observed and entirely credible, so that readers can identify with the thrill of new love blossoming, the joy of a man who has found the ideal partner on his very first try. The book’s one sex scene is impressively rendered, explicit and yet also understated, so that Aoyama doesn’t really know if he is making love with a totally uninhibited woman or simply dreaming (but knowing the payoff is a certain passion killer for the reader). And yes, of course Asami is too good to be true, with hints about her background building into a powerful picture of the abused now become an abuser, so that when shit does hit the fan it splatters everywhere. All the groundwork is laid for the final, shocking scene, in which Aoyama must fight to survive, a tense and disturbing battle in which the twists of fortune come thick and fast, and for the reader there is the realisation that, while Asami is undoubtedly mad, Aoyama has brought all this down on himself by succumbing to the lure of treating human beings as commodities, of turning romance into a business deal. He is the author of his own misfortunes, and the end result is an excellent psychological chiller, one that will linger in the mind long after the book is done.

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