Gozu (2004)

Review first published by Movie Gazette.

Review When yakuza Ozaki (Aikawa Sho) displays increasingly deranged behaviour, the gang’s boss Azamawari (Ishibashi Renji) assigns Ozaki’s subordinate Minami (Sone Hideki) to drive the embarrassing yakuza to Nagoya where he is to be executed and dumped. Reluctant to kill a superior and friend who had once saved his life, Minami is somewhat relieved when Ozaki dies in an accident on the road. Once in Nagoya, however, Ozaki’s corpse disappears from the car, and so Minami is launched on a bizarre quest to find Ozaki’s body and reconcile his own conflicted feelings towards it – a quest which takes him through the strange underworld of Nagoya, where the differences between sanity and madness, male and female, life and death, become terribly confused.

“What I’m about to tell you is all a joke, so please don’t take it seriously”. These are the first words of Ozaki in Gozu, spoken moments before he violently dispatches a cute white chihuahua (which he claims is “a yakuza dog trained to attack yakuza”) – and they also serve as a fitting introduction to this trip into psychosexual absurdity, directed by Miike Takashi. For while Minami’s smalltown encounters in Gozu should not be taken seriously, his long dark journey of the soul is very funny (in every sense of the word) – and like all good jokes, has a jaw-droppingly hilarious punchline which it would be impossible to see coming.

Written by Sato Sakichi (who also scripted Miike’s astonishing Ichi the Killer), Gozu was originally conceived as a low-budget straight-to-video release in Japan, but won an invitation to the 2003 Cannes Film Festival thanks to Miike’s typically exuberant imagination, shock tactics and judicious use of CGI. Miike has made a habit of exploring the outer limits of human experience in his vast body of work, but Gozu is, even by his own extreme standards, one weird piece of cinema, defying genre categorisation and confounding viewers with its oddball characters, perverse sexuality and unnerving transformations.

The title, denoting a demon with the head of a cow and the body of a human, seems to allude as much to the film’s unstable, hybridised form as to the Minotaur-like creature (with ridiculous-looking underpants) which appears to Minami in one of many memorable scenes. Fans of Visitor Q (and everybody should be) will be delighted to know that Miike has not lost his interest in human lactation, while fans of Ichi the Killer (ditto) will revel in the familiar splatter of sperm onto the floor (under circumstances which will change the way you think about kitchen ladles forever) – but Miike’s prime concern here is the homoerotic tension that underpins the bonds of allegiance between yakuza, a theme which the director has previously explored in Shinjuku Triad Society, Blues Harp and Agitator, but never with so much surrealistic verve as here.

Summary Criminal and infernal underworlds merge in Miike’s hilariously transgressive freakshow of love, death and rebirth. Fantastic!

© Anton Bitel