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It’s different!
Takashi Miike’s Gozu
Related stories

The Happiness of the Katakuris. By Steve Erickson.

Casting about: Takashi Miike's corrosive Audition. By Steve Erickson.

The latest film from the prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike to wash up on American shores begins and ends with shock scenes that won’t be topped soon. Whether the director of the creepy Audition (2000), the blood-spattered Ichi the Killer (2001), and the patently deranged musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) has raised or lowered the art-meets-gore standard is a subject that will debated by moviegoers who see Gozu — a large number, it’s to be hoped. Not that that can possibly matter to Miike. Since completing Gozu, the 44-year-old director is reported to have made five more films, bringing his grand total to something like 60. As one of the lucky foreign filmmakers not dependent on the American box office, he’s already moved beyond whatever response Gozu gets here.

Beneath a snow-screened television droning words we can’t understand, Gozu begins with some manga-reading yakuza conducting a meeting in a restaurant. Only, they have nothing to say to one another. Ozaki (Sho Aikawa) breaks the ice by announcing to his boss (Renji Ishibashi) that from now on whatever he says is not to be taken seriously. He then goes outside, picks up a small-breed dog, and smashes it to death against the restaurant’s window. Cut to cascading blood, roll titles.

Suspecting that Ozaki may be cracking up, the boss dispatches Ozaki’s chauffeur, Minami (Hideki Sone), to drive him to Nagoya and dispose of him in a gangster body dump. The pair arrive at another restaurant, this one featuring, in an endlessly repeated gag, the world’s most boring provincial, who talks only about the weather and hogs the pay phone. While junior gangster Minami waits to use the phone because he is out of cell-phone range, Ozaki, hitherto unconscious, disappears. This sets the movie’s second plot in motion, the youthful (and virginal) Minami’s search for his missing mentor, a silent killer who has by this point become a parody of a Beat Takeshi stoic.

Soon the film is trying on various versions of masculinity and exposing them as warped way stations on the unopen road to Japanese manhood, an idea gutted by the movie’s end. Ozaki and Minami, in yakuza style, refer to each other as "brother." In an awkward and seemingly throwaway flashback, Ozaki reveals his tenderness for Minami by asking to see his recent circumcision (Minami is driving at the time) and then presenting him with a pair of pink crotchless Givenchy panties. Give the panties to a girl you like, Ozaki tells Minami, and she’s yours. Miike, in some ways the ultimate postmodern clown among contemporary directors, doesn’t disregard Chekhovian ideas of dramatic construction. The crotchless panties prove important later in the film, by which time Miike has shown that under the Armani-clad, tattoo’d torso of a yakuza beats the heart of a cute teenage girl in novelty underwear.

Getting there isn’t pleasant. Gozu is a groaning, disarticulate movie bathed in a deep-yellow light that recalls the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, two directors Miike is either drawing from on or parodying. It’s hard to tell because Gozu explains nothing, instead relying on the image alone to tell its story. A figure appears in a giant bull’s head ("gozu" is translated as "cowhead" in the film’s subtitles) drooling semen from its mouth; a middle-aged innkeeper offers Minami her breast milk during a bathing scene; later, she and her halfwit husband are revealed to be engaged in the light industry of home breast-milk bottling operated under the household prayer "Those who deliver milk are healthier than those who drink it." Events follow one another in a half-baked, often too-slow picaresque that Miike undercuts whenever he gets bored with the genre’s conventions. A facially scarred guide whom Minami encounters reveals to us that the half-white of his face is make-up; an American liquor-shop proprietress who looks like an early-’90s porn actress reads her Japanese dialogue off cue cards that Miike places in the frame.

Miike’s recurrent problem is that his films often suggest he’d be hurt if someone took him seriously for more than a minute at a time. He works so fast that every new film becomes an adventure in either finding out whether his art has reached some new level or learning to what extent he’s squandered his talent. By the time Ozaki returns in the body of a knowing-yet-innocent pretty young girl (Kimika Yoshino) who’s intent on seducing Minami, you’re prepared for anything. What Miike delivers in Gozu’s last reel — a journey through the ages of man in the form of softcore sex that turns into floor-banging castration anxiety and ends up as birth-of-an-adult-baby exploitation — is something to see. Somehow, his slime-covered style has jelled into the universality of the biggest joke of all: that of being born. The film’s final seconds — perhaps their best — turn Gozu into a lighthearted threesome movie that may be a joke version of something from the Taiwanese new wave. With Miike, you can never tell.

Issue Date: August 13 - 19, 2004
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