And it was all just a dream... But was it? I haven't read the book so don't sue me if I get this wrong BUT I lean towards the dream-filled interpretation. Partly because the balance of evidence tends to point that way (the jump cuts, the recurring scenes and dialogue, all the stuff Aoyama can't know about Asami). But also because the film would be richer as a result. If the torture is all real, all we have is a version of the rape-revenge film – a favourite ploy of pulp directors to have and eat their feminist cake. Tarantino loves doing this, and loves this film as well, apparently. But what if it was something more? What if it was about the pulp director's guilt about his use of women as objects? What if he turns the rape-revenge onto himself?
Aoyama feels guilt first and foremost because in trying to find a girlfriend he is betraying the memory of his dead wife. But his fantasies about Asami highlight a deeper uneasiness at his behaviour towards the other women in his life. The housekeeper who praises him for raising a son by himself, even though he's actually rich enough to employ her to help out. His son's prospective girlfriend, who is sexually objectified by him. The secretary he foolishly slept with and does his best to ignore, even though she still pines for him. He is perfectly civil to all of these women, and he is also nothing if not a devoted father. The horror is made all the more acute because he is such a sympathetic character.
But there's the business with the audition. The conceit cleverly underlines the omnipresence of male domination in the film, and Japanese society. How many job interviews with powerful middle-aged men are really tests of marriageability? Aoyama remains super uncomfortable and quite sweet throughout the process. The real monster in the film is his film producer friend Yoshikawa, who organises the whole rigmarole. But Aoyama is complicit in the con trick. The measure of the man is how he checks his privilege, brutally, in his dreams.
And the twist at the end is all the more succulent. Aoyama awakes from an unforgettable nightmare next to a docile Asami, who he has promised to wed even though he now feels horror at the thought. Will he go back on his word? Will Asami be cast away, as the secretary was?