Gozu is a movie where a man receives a dream visit from a monster with a human body and the head of a cow, and that’s one of the less bizarre things that happens to him. It would be tempting to call this an Asian David Lynch movie, except that director Takashi Miike has been staking out his own and equally outlandish territory for a decade now without needing an explicit comparison to the American master-of-the-weird.
No question that Gozu does work in the same eccentric way as Lynch’s odder films (Lost Highway and his near-perfect Mulholland Drive come to mind), but there’s no question it’s its own animal, pun intended. It may also be among the very best movies Miike has ever made, and — strange as this may sound — one of his most accessible, because we don’t need to know anything about Japan or the yakuza to find it exhilarating. Existing fans of Miike should see it as a matter of course, even if they wind up just as baffled as everyone else.
Ozaki's convinced his clansmen are being stalked by a “yakuza attack dog.”
His clansmen are convinced Ozaki has screws loose, and order him disposed of.
Gozu opens with two lieutenants in a yakuza clan, underling Minami (Hideki Sone, who also appears in Miike’s Zebraman) and hotshot Ozaki (Miike-gumi Sho Aikawa, who figured into all three Dead or Alive films). The boss (Renji Ishibashi, another prolific Miike-gumi who also appears in Alive) is concerned that Ozaki may be losing it. Proof of this: at one point Ozaki whispers to his crew that a tiny Chihuahua outside is actually a “trained yakuza attack dog” — then steps outside, seizes the dog’s leash, swings it around like a bullroarer, and smashes it to death on a window. This scene could have been horribly offensive, but like the death of the poodle in A Fish Called Wanda, it’s so far over the top it becomes surreal instead of repulsive. (Come to think of it, the movie’s tone and humor seems as much Monty Pythonesque as it is Lynchian, with social embarrassment and misapplied logic abounding.)
Minami gets orders to do away with Ozaki, but is clearly hesitant: Loyal as he is to the big boss, he’s more immediately loyal to Ozaki, with whom he’s shared quite a few secrets. They go out driving somewhere in Nagoya (think the industrial flats of New Jersey or Manchester) and when Minami slams on the brakes a little too suddenly, Ozaki pitches forward and breaks his neck against the seat in front of him. With his cellphone getting no reception and his brain a mess, Minami heads into a local diner to try and make a pay phone call. It doesn’t help that the phone’s tied up by some old man having an endless and pointless conversation about the weather, or that the waiter’s a crossdresser with a weight problem, or that he gets served a revolting bowl of chicken custard with his coffee. Then he turns around and sees through the window that Ozaki has…vanished.
Minami, Ozaki's underling, gets a flat tire while looking for the other man's corpse,
and has to accept help from the enigmatic “Nose.”
Was he removed by someone else? Was he really dead in the first place? Minami jumps back in the car to hunt for him, but almost instantly has a flat tire. He’s forced to accept help from “Nose,” an oddball with half of his face discolored and flaking off, who may (or may not) know the whereabouts of a local gang that may (or may not) know where Ozaki went. This leads Minami to a small family-run inn where he’s served double portions of everything against his will and hit on by the old lady who runs the place (and has a sideline in selling her excess breast milk). He’s no less baffled by one of the local saké vendors, an American woman whose command of Japanese seems to be very strange…and the reason for that is one of the single biggest laughs in the whole film.
The vast majority of the film doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s so funny and jolting that sense would almost be a distraction. Then a mysterious woman appears in Minami’s car, claiming to be Ozaki, and we realize that the film does have a logic of its own, the logic of guilt and madness and psychopathology. Ozaki has been keeping unpleasant secrets even from himself for a long time now, and this whole misadventure is like the cork blowing off his psychic bottle. Where it leads, I could not begin to tell you, although I will say Gozu sports an ending as outlandish as the jaw-dropper Miike used to cap off Dead or Alive.
Among Minami's stops on his tour of the underworld:
a demon with a cow's head, and a yakuza skinning factory.
I suspect even people who are a fan of Miike’s other movies are going to dimiss Gozu as being self-indulgent and weird. Weird, yes, but not self-indulgent: there’s very little in the movie that doesn’t have a place or a purpose, even if it isn’t a purpose that we would understand immediately. It’s the kind of movie that only makes total sense when it’s over (as much as a film like this is going to make sense, anyway), and when it’s over you want to dive back into it to see what you missed the first time. The goal is not a completed plot, but a set of personal revelations, which can take most any form.
Miike has never taken the easy way out, and doesn’t let his audiences off the hook either. He loves to plunge into excess of all kinds — sex, violence, social outrage — but behind it all there’s a very perceptive and intelligent hand at work. Gozu was written by Ichi the Killer collaborator Sakichi Sato, but is far removed from that film’s guro bloodbath: it isn’t gory or even so much transgressive as it is just gloriously and unpredictably unhinged. As someone once said of El Topo, you may not understand a moment of it, but you won’t ever forget it. And who knows, you might wind up understanding it after all. Anything’s possible.
On a parting note, if you have seen the film already and still don’t have the faintest idea what you saw, I have theories. The way I see it, Minami has long held a suppressed homosexual attraction for Ozaki, and vice versa. Neither of them were comfortable with it, however. Ozaki had to disguise his interest in the other man as a kind of sexual cheerleading for the other man, and eventually slid into dysfunctional madness. Minami repressed everything, but found no outlet at all for his feelings, and most of the movie is about those feelings taking form. His ambivalence about women is embodied in the old lady who runs the inn, and only after Ozaki returns in a truly attractive female form does he feel comfortable consummating anything with her. And the ending is the consequences of that sexual encounter: Ozaki and Minami “return the girl to normal” — meaning that the two of them have accepted each other for what they are. I am probably dead wrong with a lot of this, but one of the fun things about Gozu (or 2001, or Eraserhead, or what-have-you) is that there doesn’t have to be one gold-standard interpretation.