The Neo-Phallic Mother, Capitalism, and Takashi Miike’s Audition

(crossposted at Orbis Mediologicus)

Takahsi Miike’s film Audition (1999) throws many of the conventions of psychoanalytic film criticism for a loop, and within a genre – the horror/revenge film – which has been so thoroughly mined, it needs some thinking outside of the box to come up with something new. If we read Audition via Carol Clover’s riff on the tradition of psychoanalytic feminist film theory on the horror/slasher genre, however, the film becomes more comprehensible, but not without requiring some mods to the model.

According to Clover, most horror films involve a killer and one character, often whittled down from a group who is slowly killed off, whose tribulations at the hand of the killer become a focus of potential identification for viewers. In this sense, the killer/slasher is a variant of the monster genre, popularized in literature with the rise of gothic creatures like Frankenstein and Dracula, and given modern form by creatures from ‘the blob’ to Godzilla. Clover classically argues that generally speaking, the final persecuted character is a woman, while the large majority of box office receipts for these movies are to young men. Clover writes her critique before the advent of Ripley, from Ridley Scott’s Alien, in which we see our first kick-ass female heroine in a (space)horror film, and in many ways Ripley changes the formula that ruled a generation of films, and represents a paradigm shift within the genre, and clearly a result of shifts within the collective psychic constellation which surrounds such films.

Fighting phallus with phallus.

But let’s return to Clover. Her question, which set the stage for an entire industry worth of critiques, is why would young, teenage men find a female protagonist, and a weak and persecuted one at that, so appealing? Clover’s argument is that it is precisely the late teenage years – right after the anxieties of insufficiency which often happen at puberty, at the time of all the typically hypermasculine display-rituals of transition to masculinity, and before that display-masculinity is crushed by entrance into a disempowering workforce – that the set of fantasies put forth by the classic horror film are oddly appropriate. For in the classic (pre-Alien) slasher, we see a final protagonist, most often a girl, persecuted by the slasher, but unlike the traditional monster film, there is no male hero to save her (or, as in many slasher films, the male hero arrives after the monster is defeated by the ‘final girl’). Who does the male viewer have to identify with? The emasculated male savior figure, the persecuting yet often disgusting or disfigured slasher, or the weak yet at the end suddenly empowered female heroine?

Clover argues that in fact all three are positions within the typical adolescent male psyche. For Clover, the barely post-pubescent male can certainly see their fears mirrored in the facade of masculinity of the pathetic male hero who tends to show up at the very end of the slasher, often kept offstage by some ridiculous impediment. Likewise, the monster or slasher, often conflated in this genre, can then be read as a conflation of multiple ‘coming-to-masculinity’ fears. For on the one hand, the monster can be read as a variation of a persecuting male figure, often a father substitute, maybe an avatar of the school bully. This is complicated, however, by the fact that the monster is most often also in some way deficient – scarred, disfigured, or somehow between or multi-gendered (a trait read as aberrant or deficient to the dominant heterosexist/masculinist system). Here we see perhaps the fear of what might happen if the trials of masculinity are not surpassed by our young male spectator. The dream of castrated and castrating become conflated into one, within an overdetermined condensation formation which, according to Freud, knows no contradiction due to its unconscious nature. But the most fascinating link that Clover makes is between the adolescent male spectator and the female protagonist who outlasts the others killed by the slasher, the so-called “final girl.” For Clover, since pre-pubescent masculinity is often imagined as a feminine, the space of ‘mama’s boys,’ the final girl who at the end of a slasher film has to become “phallic” by finally penetrating the slasher is an avatar of the pre-pubescent male coming to masculinity, a recent and horrific memory for recently post-pubescent males. Watching slasher films then is reliving a recent crisis.

Clover argues that the horror film is the drama of coming to maleness, re-enacted in symbolic form. Persecuted by the complexes of masculinity, the pre-masculine heroine fights off the monster/slasher which repeatedly tries to “penetrate” it with its knife (or other phallic substitute), even if in the end, the final girl herself penetrates the slasher/monster by killing him, thereby achieving what, in much psychoanalytic theory, is called “the phallus” – the imaginary and imagined symbol of masculinity, that which is the penis ‘and then some.’

Where does Audition fit into all of this? [SPOILER ALERT] In Audition, we see a grown man whose wife dies early in the film. Seven years later, his young son has become a teenager, and the teenage son encourages the faithfully abstinent widower to find a new wife. Our hero, the father Aoyama, stages a mock audition, via his ties to the entertainment industry, to find a new wife. The intended tv-show never materializes, but he meets a very demure woman, Asami, who he begins to date. This woman, however, has massive issues (to put it nicely!). As the audience slowly begins to piece together, the last guy she dated turned out be doing things behind Asami’s back. So she decided to cut him up, keeping what remained of him at him, torturing and turning him into an animal.

We find out, of course, that there are reasons why Asami is so revengeful to anyone who betrays her. Her parents broke up when she was very young, and she then went to live with an abusive Aunt and step-uncle. The Aunt, generally abusive, seems nowhere as bad as her step-uncle, who burned her with two metals sticks on her legs, right near her privates, easily a metaphor for sexual assault. As the film goes on, Asami realizes that Aoyama has an ex-wife and son that he loves – and she considers this a betrayal. She drugs Asami, and begins to torture him, in one of the most famously brutal torture scenes in modern film. Asami penetrates Aoyama’s body with numerous tiny needles, even under his eyes, and then she chops off one foot. But as she prepares to chop off the other, Aoyama’s son comes home from a date that ended early. Asami tries to kill him as well, but he kicks her down the stairs. It is the son who now ends up phallicized, and who saves the father. How can we read this according to Carol Clover’s model?

If the son is a sort of newly phallicized “final girl” at the end of this movie, why is the monster now a sadistic female, and why is our hero, who we would figure for final girl, a middle aged man? Clover’s original work provides us with a reworking of the psychoanalytic combinatory of psychic positions, reworked to fit the horror film of the late seventies and early eighties in America. So how can we rework the dramatis personae of the psychoanalytic meta-narrative to make sense of Audition?

Let’s see who falls within the typical psychoanalytic backstory. Building from a cast of characters assembled from Freud, Lacan, and Zizek, let’s consider the following archetypes: phallic mother, sadistic “anal” father, young child (usually assumed male, for reasons considered later). Asami clearly has aspects of the phallic and castrating mother figure, which for Freud was the retroactive fantasy construction of the adolescent male reflecting back upon the memory of childhood dependency upon a seemingly powerful mother who is now evidenced as lacking in the face of dominant patriarchy in the world.

But why is the phallic mother persecuting Aoyama, particularly seeing as he is painstakingly presented in the film as a good father to his son? Aoyama’s sins in the film are in fact quite small. He bends the rules at work a little to find Asami, and he seems to be attracted to her overly demure demeanor, evidence perhaps of a latent sadistic side. But he is reduced to complete helplessness by Asami – she drugs him so that he cannot move, only feel pain, and then she proceeds to penetrate him time and again with needles. Clearly he is made to regress, against his will, to helplessness before an avatar of the so-called “phallic mother.” But, and this is crucial, it is his SON who beats her back, saving his father. Furthermore, there is much done in the film to lend support to the notion that the entire second half of the film (if not more) is a fantasy.

In a scene which is repeated twice in the film, we see Aoyama and Asami at a restaurant, decorated in an otherworldly bright white, in which Aoyama asks Asami about her family. The first time we see this scene, Asami replies to Aoyama’s inquiry with relatively pleasant sounding stories about her parents in their old age. The second time, repeated much later in the film, in flashback as Asami is zoning in and out during his torture, we learn a different side of things. Asami shares instead the details of her brutalization at the hands of her Aunt and step-uncle. And yet, which scene happened? We are not told. Nevertheless, the film makes a rather abrupt transition between a highly realistic style of editing to a disjointed, non-linear form of storytelling and visual technique for the final third of the film after the second version of this clip. What gives?

I’m going to stop here – not because I don’t think the film makes sense, but because I think it DOES, and presents an original mutation of the original structure. But what if my students, or those of other film profs, are reading this blog? Don’t want to give away too much and ruin some good papers in the making! But there’s enough bread-crumbs here, no?

So let’s swerve a bit. For while the film tells its story through the lens of the family, in many ways, I think this is, as family sagas usually are, a set of allegories for a society which uses the family as a social factory for its new recruits. Engels was the first to argue that the bourgeosie, nuclear family is a factory for the production of new subjects for subjection to the capitalist work system. And Japan’s highly hierarchical business culture is notorious for the manner in which it takes care of folks cradle to grave – and yet, the time in which this film was made, 1999, was the end of nearly a decade in which that system had been in massive crisis due to a recession which seemed to go no without end.

Nevertheless, it seems the recession has not touched Aoyama. He seems relatively self-sufficient, works in some sort of entertainment field, and though we see one co-worker, it is unclear if this is a boss, colaborator, or colleague. Aoyama seems to run his own office, yet it is unclear if he works for a larger company. He certainly doesn’t work for one of the classic Japanese super-companies like Totyota or Mitsubisihi. But he is eaten up by the new capitalism nevertheless when, reincarnated in the form of a woman who, seemingly tame-able, gives him the death of a thousand cuts, and nearly gets to turn him in to another male animal she puts in the sack she keeps on the floor in her room.

Bereft of a wife, sensitive and worldly, Aoyama is still prey to a system which reduces him to infancy, given allegorical form via the fantasy of Asami. But in the world of mass media capitalism, while you can’t move, you can still feel and sense, for capitalism needs eyes for its increasingly attention-economy based system. We are reduced to a passive sensorium, we feel so the system doesn’t have to, and if we’re lucky, it lets us eat its vomit (as Asami does to the man in the sack). All I have to say is I wouldn’t want to be coming of age in this culture, or I’d have some bad dreams indeed.

During the audition scene, we see Asami isolated, in a room by herself, selling herself to two male executives, a job interview gone wrong. We see through Aoyama and his colleague’s eyes, even as, at other points in the film, Aoyama tries sitting in that chair by himself. And are we not all commodities when we go on job interviews? In today’s increasingly unstable corporate culture, there is no such thing as a job for life, as there was in Japan during much of the postwar period. Rather, one is on a perpetual audition, one is always being evaluated for a job that is always part-time, one is always a consultant, one never has a single boss but many, for the corporate structure is no longer hierarhical and centralized, but like a zillion little needles that penetrate from all directions, even as the goal is to ultimately knock your feet out from under you.

Aoyama’s son is fascinated by dinosaurs. Isn’t this precisely what the post-war corporate warrior has become? Better learn to sell yourself, kid, for its time to go on a life-long audition, or you’ll end up like a dinosaur. Chin up! Because if you’re too sensitive, you may have some bad dreams, in which a phallic step-mother figure may develop a few thousand penetrating phalli. But if you’re lucky, though, perhaps a flat-screen TV, a housekeeper, and a demure wife may be in your future, so, what’s a few needles in the eye in the meantime? 

Techno-phallic Ripley

Oh, where’s Ripley when we need her. Lacan tells the story of a life-form which lives for nothing but to reproduce, and Zizek famously says that this mythical creature, which Lacan calls the “lamella,” finds its most recent incarnation in the creatures fought by Ripley in the Alien franchise. These shape shifting xenomorphs, the flip side of the evil corporations which act as the governments of these dystopian films, and which continually try to tame the aliens, have a tendency to eat everything in their paths, even the representatives of the corporations which try to tame them. Each are the flip side of the other.

In one of my favorite lines of poetry (from a work called “Blood on the Rooftops,” track it down if you will!), “Seems Helen of Troy has found a new face, again.” If the Alien films prove that women can now be phallicized, perhaps Japan needs Ripley, cause there’s a new Alien is in their house. Then again, as we saw in Alien 4: Resurrection (1996), Ripley is herself part alien – following the paranoid logic of homo-panic from the 1950’s, “it takes one to know one,” or so the film seems to argue. And what does the Queen alien, a mother of course, give birth to at the end of this film?

The newborn.

Probably one of the most horrific creatures to grace the modern screen, a creature generally called “the newborn” by those involved with the film’s production. This creature is a half human, half alien hybrid, a mutated product of Ripley and the Queen’s genetics. And it is hungry, deadly hungry. Its face is eerily human, and it cries out in clearly human pain when it feels abandoned, only to eat its mother’s head, as well as that of the capitalist agent who is nearby worshipping it, even as it has already had its body absorbed into the living hive-matter crawling up the walls.

According to Wikipedia, “he original design of the human/Alien hybrid included a mix of a male and female genitalia, which was removed during post-production.” What a surprise!

Who is this child, this terrifying infant? It is us, the modern consumer, no? Luckily there will always be good sons to take up the role of running the family business, and help subject the world to its hungry maw. Because while we may imagine ourselves as masters of our world, voyeurs in a capitalist mediasphere which allows us to subject the world to our gaze making it audition before us, we are Asamis to each other, secreting by our collective gazes a state of perpetual audition, making Aoyamas of all of us. Projecting and introjecting a thousand mutating needles, a multicitious Aoyama-Asami complex, fractally reproducing this scene in all directions, making it the fabric of reality which eats the world.

And yet, there is a hope. For in fact, Ripley is part xenomorph, right? Likewise, the newborn has, for a moment before flying into horrific rage, a moment of seeming tenderness, and kinship with Ripley. Ripley finds purification by sacrificing herself, and the Alien within her, in molten metal, with the alien famously bursting from her chest at the last instant. Perhaps it is time we stop repeating the same family scene?

~ by chris on January 30, 2010.

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