Audition (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

A compulsive, one-sitting read.

I picked this up by mistake while browsing the (Haruki) Murakami section at Waterstones. So this is who they call the ‘other Murakami’! This ‘psychosexual thriller'(?!) races at top speed through the story of Aoyama, a documentary film-maker living in Tokyo with his son Shige. After Shige suggests that Aoyama remarry (his wife died seven years ago due to cancer), and best bud Yoshikawa agrees, a series of events is set into motion, ending in a pretty gruesome and genuinely shocking climax.

The premise is this: in order to find a suitable wife for Aoyama, Yoshikawa suggests holding auditions for a bogus movie (that he has no intention to produce). This is a quick and easy way to filter through tons of women until the right one comes along. So far, so good.

The thing is, the premise turns out to be kind of pointless, because Aoyama becomes infatuated with Yamasaki right at the start of the selection process, as soon as her resume catches his eye. At the insistence of Yoshikawa, he reluctantly watches the other women’s auditions, utterly convinced that they are all petty and shallow compared with the stunning Yamasaki. Given that the title of the book is ‘Audition’, and that the audition idea is introduced early on in text and serves as the motor for all subsequent events, I thought a lot more could have been done with the idea. It really didn’t feel germane to the overall plot. I expected it to be explored more deeply and was left feeling a bit cheated when it wasn’t.

Anyway, Aoyama begins his courtship of Yamasaki, who I found to be a bit of a two-dimensional character. I didn’t share Aoyama’s infatuation, and for me she held no intrigue. I think in an attempt to make her seem compelling and captivating, Murakami actually constructs her character rather unconvincingly. We see only two sides to her – the lovely and sweet side, and then the monstrous side we experience at the end. Poorly layered? We are told she suffered awful abuse in the past, but because of the undeveloped characterisation, it all seems a bit mad at the end when she breaks out psycho. I did like the concept though, and if you enjoy blood and gore and gruesomeness as much as me then the final act is a treat.

So – a quick, fun read. That’s not to say it lacks all manner of depth. Some of the observations contained are thought-provoking. We’re given some insights into Japanese culture and society: a slightly tipsy Aoyama philosophises about sushi bars at one point – how Japan’s conformist, rigid social culture is reflected even in its cuisine. The descriptions of how Aoyama and Shige adapt after the mother’s death are also moving and delicately executed.