(2003) Directed by Takashi Miike; Written by Sakichi Satô; Starring: Yûta Sone, Shô Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Shôhei Hino, Keiko Tomita, Harumi Sone and Renji Ishibashi; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Instant
“…When I was a child the world was more interesting and magical; riding a bike to the next town, you turn a corner, see a place you’ve never seen before… Gozu is how a child sees the world, wandering around.” – Takashi Miike (excerpt from interview with Wade Major)
Once again, my readers have spoken. In the recent Twitter poll about my first review for Japan-uary VI, it was a close race between three titles, and Gozu prevailed. As a fan of director Takashi Miike’s films, I eagerly anticipated watching this title, with the expectation that I didn’t know what I was getting into. I wasn’t disappointed. This movie more than solidified Miike’s reputation as an unpredictable filmmaker, with its bizarre assortment of characters and imagery burned into my neurons. Yet, if I were to recommend a Miike film to someone who had never seen one of his movies, this wouldn’t be the one. The Miike neophyte might consider getting his or her feet wet with Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), 13 Assassins (2010), or even Ichi the Killer (2001) before plunging into the deep end with Gozu.
In Gozu, as with many other Miike films, nothing is entirely what it seems. It starts out with familiar themes for Miike, as a yakuza drama, but abruptly runs off the rails, veering into uncharted territory. After his older brother Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) is pegged as a liability to the organization, Minami (Yûta Sone) is charged with transporting him to a junkyard in Nagoya for disposal. Along the way, Minami loses Ozaki’s body, and must deal with some less than cooperative townspeople to retrieve it. What follows is a hallucinatory, darkly comic odyssey that seems to have been penned by Franz Kafka and rendered by David Lynch’s paintbrush. The title itself translates roughly as “cow’s head.” According to Miike, Gozu is a Buddhist figure, who stands as a “gatekeeper for both sides,” between our world and hell.
The opening scene should come with a warning attached if you’re a pet lover; even if you’ve already been indoctrinated into the cult of Miike, it might be jarring. In Miike’s defense, it’s presented in a cartoonish fashion, so it should probably be regarded as such. Don’t worry, if you decide to skip ahead five minutes, or look away, you shouldn’t miss much. There’s plenty more weirdness where that came from. And if you’re not disturbed by the scene,* you’re bound to find something else that will set you on edge.
* I probably don’t want to know you if you enjoyed it.
Minami’s reluctant guide in Nagoya is Nose (Shôhei Hino) a man with half of his face painted white (which he tries to pass off as a congenital defect). He spends an awkward night in a motel run by a middle aged woman (Keiko Tomita) and her brother (Harumi Sone, Yûta’s real-life father), which seems to be a portal to hell. As Minami explores the town, searching for his brother’s missing body, danger and uncertainty lurk in every corner. At one point, Miike breaks the fourth wall featuring a scene with an American character reading broken Japanese from cue cards taped to the wall. When he finally catches up to Ozaki, he’s alive and well, but in a woman’s body (Kimika Yoshino).
Gozu really doesn’t belong in the horror category, although it contains scenes that would be at home in any horror film. Depending on your perspective, it’s a dark comedy or a twisted drama, shrouded in a cloud of existential dread. Of course, it wouldn’t feel like a Miike film without at least one nauseating scene, and Gozu is no exception, with several sequences that are almost guaranteed to test your intestinal fortitude. If you drink milk or eat milk products, you’ll probably never be the same again after Gozu’s take on lactation (yes, you read that right). There’s also a scene with a yakuza boss (Renji Ishibashi) and a soup ladle that’s better left to the imagination, or not.
It’s hard to think of another modern filmmaker who could be as consistently prolific and versatile as Miike, but with such a varied resume, Gozu stands alone. Unlike some of his more accessible films, it’s not as driven by story or plot as mood. It’s a film that needs to be experienced rather than described. On the negative side, I wasn’t as drawn to the characters as some of Miike’s other efforts, but I anticipate Gozu will reward on subsequent viewings. It’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it for film-goers who demand everything wrapped up in a neat little bow. For those intrepid viewers who tire of seeing films that swim in familiar waters, and don’t mind a polarizing experience, here’s something that shouldn’t disappoint.