Directed by Takashi Miike, 2003, 128 min. starring Hideki Sone, Sho Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, and Shohei Hino.
Challenge number 547 for an Asian extreme cinema reviewer: write the 547 th introduction to the 547 th Takashi Miike film you've seen in the last 24 months. Prolificness... lots of gore... non-consensual sex... homophobia and homoerotica at the same time... lactation... torture... etc etc etc. Is anyone still reading? ;-)
So, I reckon by now anyone with any knowledge of Japanese cinema probably knows what to expect from a Miike movie. It'll be, no doubt, some sort of gross-out horror flick involving buckets of blood, yakuzas and gimps, probably shot on video in Super Poop-o-Vision. It'll be pretty short and forgettable, have an easy-to-follow plot line and have Ren Osugi in it somewhere. Maybe Shinya Tsukamoto'll do a cameo too.
Well, with 2003's Gozu, prepare to have your preconceptions pretty much blown out of the water. Like the previous year's Sabu, Gozu sees Miike breaking out of his genre ghetto and emerging with something a lot more stylish and thoughtful than his usual schlockfests. It’s as if, one spare day when he wasn't busy writing, producing, directing, editing or doing endless interviews for DVD extras, our hero Miike sat down with the complete works of David Lynch and thought to himself "Mmm, I'll have some of that". Gozu features, in no particular order: a virginal Yakuza, a giant cow/man crossbreed in piss-stained Y-fronts licking another man's face, a Yakuza boss with a fetish for ladles, a disappearing corpse, unconvincing cross-dressing waiters, a man with half his face painted white, a lactating hotel landlady and her quasi-psychic autistic brother, and the most bizarre sex/birth scene you're ever likely to watch. Trust me, you'll love it.
Ozaki has gone mad. He's a high-powered Yakuza, really second in command to his boss. He's generally solid and reliable, and quite obviously the choice to lead the gang when the time comes for his superior to "retire". The only trouble is now he's seeing danger in the most unlikely of places – such as the little toy dog lurking outside the Yakuza café with its owners, which is obviously a Yakuza Dog, trained to kill Yakuza. Therefore it must die. The poor mutt is despatched by Ozaki twirling it, still on its lead, around his head before slamming it against the café window. His fellow Brothers look on in horror, and so it is that junior gangster Minami is entrusted with driving the ailing criminal to Nagoya , and, ultimately, to the Azamawari gang's disposal site – and you can guarantee that all sorts of waste is disposed of there.
Midway through the journey, though, having informed Minami of his intentions to take over the crew, Ozaki becomes convinced they're being trailed by a Yakuza Car, which, much like the Yakuza Dog, is going to kill them. Kicking the driving Minami in the head, Ozaki storms out the car and steams towards the really very ordinary vehicle behind them, ready to shoot the unprepossessing woman driving it in the head. Fortunately, just as he's about to shoot, Minami tackles him, sending him to the floor and knocking him out cold. The hapless thug bundles his friend into the back seat and roars off to the disposal site, only to have to stop suddenly when the road gives way to a river.
Suddenly means SUDDENLY, and the already cataleptic Ozaki is propelled forwards, before crumpling in a heap, eyes wide open, seemingly now lifeless. Minami naturally panics, and, his mobile phone out of network coverage, heads for the nearest payphone. When that refuses to work too, he heads for a café, leaving the corpse propped up in the back seat, sunglasses on to draw attention away from its glassy stare. Inside, the locals give him short shrift, instead indulging in their own inane conversations about the weather and paying no attention at all to the waiting staff, who just happen to all be in drag, and bad drag at that. When Minami is served egg custard with Gingko nuts alongside his coffee, it's so nauseating he has to retreat to the toilet to throw up. On his return, it takes a moment or two of looking through the window to realise that the corpse has simply vanished from the back of the car.
Up to this point, the drag aside, this has been a fairly bog standard Yakuza genre piece. Finally managing to get hold of the now irate Boss – who takes Minami's call despite the fact he's in the middle of servicing a nameless Yakuza groupie, complete with necessary ladle shoved up his arse - he's advised to seek out the Shiroyama gang for help. The only problem is that the address Minami's given is the local temple. In desperation, he turns to a local freak for assistance, a man called Nose who has half his face painted white, who first extracts a bone from his now deflated front tyre and then leads him, for no real reason, to the local dump. This turns out to be the actual base of the rather... odd... Shiroyama clan. There, he's told to wait till morning, book into a local hotel and start the search early.
All's not well at the hotel – the landlady is decidedly odd and her brother Kazu resembles Lurch from the Addams Family. She is only too keen to help – indeed, she'll provide anything her guests require. She even bursts in on Minami in the bath, offering first to wash him and then a feed from her ample lactating bosoms. The landlady is easily the wrong side of sixty. Minami, of course, is only too keen to get the hell out of there, especially when he finds breakfast in his room laid for three, and when Nose returns for him the next morning, the investigations can begin in depth.
What follows is a deeper descent into surrealism. How can the café customers help – and why are they still conducting the same inane conversations about the weather as the day before? Who is the strange man who's been buying azuki beans from the American sake trader? Why is the landlady lactating, and is Kazu really a psychic as she claims? And who is the strange woman waiting for Minami at the disposal site?
As I said at the top, this is a movie which has no qualms in plunging us into its own sense of reality. Whether it's the American sake shop owner reading her lines from idiot boards pinned on the set (and being accompanied by Minami), or the sequence involving the cow/man hybrid, or Kazu suckling from the Landlady, or the Azamawari boss only being able to get it up with a ladle up his bum, it's enormously easy to be thrust into this peculiar parallel world without the need to question too much – it's delightful just to roll with the surreal punches and relish the weird twists the plot takes. In that respect, it's got a fair amount in common with Higuchinsky's Uzumaki, as it follows its own irrational internal logic and there's so much happening that just makes no damn sense at all that you've got no choice but to accept it and go with the flow.
In some ways it shows that this was originally a straight-to-video V-cinema work before the decision was taken to take it to Cannes in 2003. The budget isn't huge, although as usual Miike makes the best of what he's given and, if anything, this is the best constructed movie he's made bar the big(ish) budget Ichi The Killer. As soon as Minami enters the café for the first time, the tint on the film suddenly turns yellow, and similarly there's a definite sense of urgency in the camera movements when he realises he's lost Ozaki's corpse.
You can't really fault the performances either. It would have been so easy to play either Minami or Nose as pantomime, and it's to the credit of Hideki Sone and Shohei Hino that neither do. Kimika Yoshino is solid as the strange girl at the end, and really the only ham in the piece is Renji Ishibashi as the Azamawari boss. That said, his role is really little more than comic relief – ladles, remember – and, in a movie packed full of fart jokes and knob gags, he never really becomes tiresome in the short time he's on screen.
Refreshingly, there's little of the cheap tactics in Gozu which of late have been characteristic of Miike's work. I failed to spot one single example of misogyny, for example, and there's really only one, very mild, occurrence of gore. There's even a nod to Visitor Q in the lactating landlady. But thankfully this time round there's no rape, no homophobia... which makes watching Gozu much less of a chore than it might have been otherwise. Indeed, without wanting to give too much away, you could interpret the whole of the movie as a gay love story between Ozaki and Minami, with the latter having an unrequited crush on his senior, and being unable to reconcile himself to the fact. Taking that interpretation certainly makes the finale that much easier to interpret – as usual, Miike is quite careful to not give a solid resolution to the movie, which, due to the whole weird thing, actually works well here without being annoying.
In breaking the usual Miike mould, Gozu is a refreshing change of pace from Japan 's most prolific director. What starts out as quite a standard genre movie which wouldn't be out of place initially as the fourth part of the Black Society Trilogy, Gozu soon develops its own weird sense of reality. While it undoubtedly drags as some of Minami's investigations get rather bogged down in detail, and the movie as a whole could do with losing twenty minutes, it nevertheless presents a side of Miike we've seldom seen up to this point. Tartan Films often choose the more rounded, mainstream end of Miike's works for release and this is no exception. While clearly not for everyone, Gozu shows a fresh approach and a welcome departure from an established cult director which may well appeal to those who have taken an understandable aversion to Miike's previous output.
Snowblood Apple Rating for this film:
Entertainment Value: 8/10 - drags in the middle, but the best Miike movie this side of Ichi The Killer
Violence: 4/10 - for Miike, it's rather restrained, ladles notwithstanding
Ladle: Hard, medium or soft - choose your pleasure
Cow-headed demon man: 1
Pee-stained Y-fronts: 1, too many still though
Dogs: How much is that doggie on the window. Oh, it's bleeding
Films in a Similar Style: Uzumaki, Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q, anything by David Lynch
*** Recommended ***
Special thanks to Tartan Films for providing the DVD for this review.
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Snowblood Apple Filmographies
http://asiaextreme.co.uk/gozu/ - semi-official Tartan Films site, with trailers etc
http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/gozu.shtml - Midnight Eye's review from Tom Mes
http://www.toei-video.co.jp/data/gozu/ - official Japanese site, with all sorts of goodies [Japanese only]
http://www.indiewire.com/people/people_040729miike.html - interview with Miike about Gozu
http://www.metacritic.com/video/titles/gozu/ - soundbite reviews from various critics
http://www.bbc.co.uk/films/2004/06/22/gozu_2004_review.shtml - nice review from the BBC
http://www.thegline.com/dvd-of-the-week/2004/11-28-2004.htm - The G Line does a usual thorough job, with screencaps and theories about what the hell is going on
http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Sto...00,00.html - The Grauniad hated it though
http://www.jpreview.com/Reviews%20HTML/reviews/gozu.html - Gareth at jpreview liked it too