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Audition By Ryu Murakami, trans Ralph McCarthy

A Japanese romance in horror style

The opening chapters of Ryu Murakami’s novel are wry, with a premise suggesting the sort of Hollywood film Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan might be right for. Aoyama, a successful documentary producer, has been widowed for a few years. His teenage son suggests he remarries, but he isn’t sure how to meet a suitable candidate until a friend proposes that they float a film project and advertise for a leading lady.

“The male imagination is a powerful thing, and it was enough to tip the balance,” Murakami writes. Aoyama decides to go along with the scam. “He had no way of knowing the unspeakable horrors that awaited him.”

This uh-oh moment comes on page 26 of a 200-page novel. Murakami periodically drops more ominous bombs. But the protagonist takes no notice as he selects elegant Asami from the short list, and gets to know her during meals in high-end Tokyo restaurants.

There’s a bubbling-under of plot developments. The hero’s son wonders if it’s possible for anyone to get over childhood trauma and become as serene as she appears to be. Eventually, the story switches gears – first into explicit sex and then into the sort of sado-horror Hanks would never be involved in.

Murakami’s novel arrives in English nearly a decade after its successful film adaptation, so many readers are liable to know what’s in store for Aoyama when, after a brief disappearance, Asami comes back into his life with a kitchen implement and a deranged agenda.

The film, directed by Takashi Miike, is suggestive about elements the book spells out bluntly. Miike gained a lot from elegantly wrought source material – but the book is now in danger of seeming like a draft, or even a screen treatment.

Nevertheless, Audition is a serious shocker – an inside-out romance that depends on connections the principal characters miss but the reader is nudged into noticing. This thoughtful analysis of the mores of modern Japanese relationships shifts into Grand Guignol overdrive in the closing pages.

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