57. GOZU (2003)

AKA Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu (full Japanese title)

INDIEWIRE INTERVIEWER: Are there any themes or images you find too upsetting or disturbing to show?

MIIKE: Normal things.”

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY: Takashi Miike

FEATURING: Yûta Sone, Shô Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino

PLOT:  Minami is a journeyman yakuza whose boss Ozaki is going insane, and who has been ordered by higher-ups to see to it that he is killed.  Since Ozaki once saved his life, Minami is conflicted about the assignment; but fortunately, an accident seems to take care of the problem for him.  That is, until the presumptive corpse disappears while he is stopped in a strange town outside of Nagoya, and Minami launches a desperate search for his boss that leads him into a surreal labyrinth of malleable identities.

Still from Gozu (2003)

BACKGROUND:

  • Gozu was one of five movies the prolific Miike made in 2003.
  • “Gozu” means cow’s head, and the full Japanese title translates literally as Grand Theatre of Perversion and Fear: Cow’s Head (sometimes translated as Yakuza Horror Theater).
  • Like many of Miike’s films, Gozu was originally intended as a direct-to-video release.  A successful Cannes screening got the movie noticed, and it was able to get wider theatrical distribution.
  • Harumi Sone, who plays the small role of the Inkeepers Brother, is the father of star Yûta Sone, and the executive producer of the film.  He brought the idea of casting his son in a yakuza film to Miike, though it’s reasonable to suspect he had a more traditional film in mind.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In a film full of shocking imagery, the obscenely drooling cow-headed man who slowly approaches Minami to lick his face stands out.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDGozu may be the culmination of Miike’s “weird and perverted”

English language trailer for Gozu

phase, loaded with his particular fetishes and combining the two genres he works best in: horror and the yakuza (mobster) film.  With its Eraserhead-like aura of personal alienation and fearsome psycho-sexual nightmares, bizarre identity shifts, and a cow-headed man as a mascot, Gozu‘s weirdness is never in doubt.

COMMENTS:  Sexual repression always makes a good base for a weird movie.  Our libidos are socially maladjusted morons, and we constantly have to shush their inappropriate suggestions for novel avenues of gratification, whether they be with objects, beasts, dead people, or family members.  They bedevil us with passing fantasies we shouldn’t, and wouldn’t, want to be fulfilled in reality.  When they make seemingly reasonable demands—such as that we throw ourselves at that hunk or hottie with the twinkle in his or her eye—they can do the most damage of all, if the person they’re pushing you to mate with is all wrong for you.  You just can’t take the things to a well-heeled dinner party, unless you train them well to keep their big mouths shut.  So we muzzle our inappropriate sexual impulses and force them deep down into the subconscious, but we can only hope to contain them for a while.  In dreams and nightmares, these cellared desires bubble up through the floorboards of our conscious minds.

When these fantastic, taboo images bubble up into Takashi Miike’s daydreams, he collects and bottles them and makes them into the stars of his latest cinematic horror show.

If sexual repression is an excellent base for a weird movie, then awkward yakuza foot soldier Minami is a perfect tent pole to drape a weird plot on.  He’s an adult virgin, and quite possibly a repressed homosexual.  As much as he wants to keep to himself and to remain a non-sexual being, he’s surrounded by characters who simultaneously tempt him to give in to his urges, and repulse him with their disturbing otherness.  The head of his criminal organization is an aging Lothario who requires a peculiar form of anal stimulation to perform.  In his wanderings through a nightmare suburb of Nagoya he encounters transvestite waiters and a horny, post-menopausal lactating innkeeper who can’t keep her hands or her milk to herself.  A man with a pigmentation disorder that makes him look like a half-painted kabuki actor tries to impose upon Minami to let him spend the night in his hotel room.  Beast-men in tighty-whities lick him in his dreams.  And when he finally meets a nice girl who’s into him… well, let’s just say he has justifiable reasons to be conflicted about the relationship…

Gozu begins with a standard sort of gangster dilemma: Minami has been ordered to dispose of immediate boss, a man who once saved his life and whom he considers a brother, but also a man who has become dangerous and unbalanced.  Though twisted, the plot follows yakuza film mechanics and tropes just enough to ground us. But it quickly becomes obvious that the real action and conflict is inside Minami’s head.  Only twenty minutes in, when he reaches a strange cafe on the outskirts of Nagoya where the chef wears a conspicuous black bra under his sheer white shirt and a local yammers insistently and continuously over the phone about how hot it was yesterday, it’s clear that Minami isn’t in reality anymore.  Ozaki’s (possibly dead) body disappears and the gangster must hunt for him throughout the bizarre burg. That digression becomes a pretense for a series of strange adventures where the mild-mannered mafiosi will be made maddeningly uncomfortable by the unwanted attentions of the suburb’s weird inhabitants, all who seem to be giving him the grand runaround while coming on to him.  Just as things events to be wandering off into a black plot hole, the world of the yakuza comes crashing back, and the story picks up steam again as it heads towards a bloody and perverse sexual nightmare climax where maestro Miike tops himself yet again—in fantastic imagery if not in pure shock value.

The chief (and perhaps the only serious) complaint about Gozu is that it bogs down in the middle section, during the search for Ozaki.  Miike is intent on impressing us with the Nagoya suburb’s surreal scenery, but like a bad tour guide he tires us out by being more interested in the sights than we are, and through giving us more information than we need.  The purpose of the tour is to imbue us with a sense of dread, of being out of place in an unknown land of strange and vaguely hostile customs, but Miike keeps plodding along after that goal has been successfully achieved.  Some events hang in the air.  There is an intriguing bit with an old sage who makes Minami answer a Sphinx-like riddle before agreeing to help him, threatening to take something important away from him if he answers incorrectly.  It seems like a perfect setup for a callback later in the script—what is the thing that’s important to Mianmi that’s might be in jeopardy?—but the character and the hint are dropped.  Yet other inscrutable incidents, such as the thin whitish fluid that drips from the inn’s ceiling into Minami’s soup, form uncanny connections later in the script.  Much of this meandering middle section seems off-the-cuff, almost improvised, and although Miike stumbles into some great set pieces, after seeing multiple scenes that don’t go anywhere, the anxiety welling up in our breasts starts to feel more about ourselves rather than Minami.  Will we ever find out what has happened to Ozaki, or has the script become unmoored?  Are we about to drift off into a sea of purposeless weirdness, wandering from one eccentric encounter to another until the movie arbitrarily ends?  Fortunately, a brilliant dream sequence jolts Minami and the script back on track, and like a roller coaster after a long climb, the story hurtles down into a dark tunnel at a breakneck pace.

Miike revisits many of the fetishes he explored two years earlier in Visitor Q, but here the sexual imagery is more nightmarish than fetishistic.  Lactation in a middle aged woman is again featured prominently, along with explicit and implicit incest.  A “vagina dentata” scene again plays a key role in the climax.  Gozu‘s perversions, while way beyond the pale, are less extended than those of Visitor Q.  Besides being shorter and less lurid, they are lit in darkness or a sickly yellow glow, rather than the garish sunlit video of the earlier film.  The change of emotional tone (from day to night) and genre (comedy to horror) makes Gozu less shocking, while at the same time feeling deeper, more affecting and more effectice.  The two films serve as a good example of how a change of context totally changes the impact of almost identical material; when Visitor Q asked me to laugh at incest and necrophilia, it left me with a dirty feeling.  Gozu, on the other hand, feels cathartic, like I’ve encountered something dirty within myself, but triumphed over it and cleansed it from my soul for a while.

Gozu is a decent into the knotty psycho-sexual thickets of the subconscious.  On the surface, it’s a tale of betrayal and loyalty among thieves.  Minaki’s guilt, and the searing conflict between doing his duty as a yakuza and the brotherhood he feels for Ozkai, is the text that slowly becomes the subtext.  The taboo and grotesque sexual imagery, delivered in an undeciphered code of symbols, rises to the forefront, and the gangster antics recede into the background.  The world of mob backstabbings comes to represent the world of the amoral libido, rather than the other way around.  In the movie’s deliberately inverted dream logic, the struggle between the our sane impulses and our demonic sex drives is more real and basic than the infighting between criminal factions.  The ending is ambiguously happy, just after a moment of incredible horror.  Gozu could be read as an allegory for repressed homosexuality, but the erotic cues are much broader than that.  Miike’s polymorphous perversity, his tales of incest in an inn where breast milk flows like wine, suggest that’s he’s after chasing something deeper and weirder; that he’s conjuring up all the repressed urges seething just below our civilized facades.  Give into them, and we may suffer the same fate as Minami.  Or, maybe it’s the act of repressing them that hurls him into a nightmare.  It’s a hard line to toe, but finding that balance between controlling and feeding our libidos is part of being human.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…arguably outweirds all previous efforts in the prolific Japanese director’s eclectic canon.”–Davide Rooney, Variety (contemporaneous)

Anyone unfamiliar with Miike’s weird and twisted assaults on cinema might be best advised to think twice before submitting themselves to this insane-in-the-membrane outing. In fact, even hardcore Miike fans will probably be left in a tailspin by Gozu’s bizarre psychodrama.”–Jamie Russel, BBC (contemporaneous)

“‘Gozu’ may ramble for scene after bizarre scene with few real shocks along the way, but Miike draws us, together with his flummoxed hero, ever deeper into his creepy, sex-charged dreamscape, until he springs his climax like a razor-toothed trap.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

IMDB LINK: Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô: Gozu (2003)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Anything But Banal; Takashi Miike on “Gozu” and His Ups and Downs – interview with the director from indiewire.com

Interview: Takashi Miike – from ign.com comes another Miike interview promoting the release of Gozu

Japanese Director Miike: An Acquired Taste – a National Public Radio audio segment profiling the career of Miike, inspired by the release of Gozu

Gozu at Movie-Censorship.com – [WARNING: graphic images] a listing of the differences between the US R-rated version and the uncut version.  Mainly of historical interest since the R-rated version is not on DVD.

DVD INFO: The single disc Pathfinder release was packed with extras, but is now out of print (search for used).  In its place (as of December 2009)  is a 2-disc “collector’s edition” courtesy of Cinema Epoch (buy), who is re-releasing Miike’s most popular titles in new editions.  Unfortunately, the 2-disc edition was not the version used in compiling this review, and Cinema Epoch has not (as yet) supplied information as to what’s included on the discs.  We will update this section when and if we find out what comprises the collectors edition, which is the only one now commercially available.

[(This movie was nominated for review by reader “John.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)]

6 thoughts on “57. GOZU (2003)”

  1. I recommended this film some time ago and I’m glad it got the approval. The moment I stumbled upon this site, I thought of this film. Again, glad you liked it and any fan of bizarre cinema needs to check this one out.

    – Doug

  2. Several people suggested Gozu, “John” was the first to make it his top pick. The suggestion I took from you was Kwaidan, I hope you’ll see the review in the upcoming weeks.

    1. Honest answer: subjective descriptive tags like that are pretty arbitrary, and not used according to any rigorous definitions. Gozu is disturbing in a different way from Clockwork Orange: more existentially disturbing, whereas Kubrick’s movie is morally disturbing.

  3. Thanks for replying and for your openness! It certainly is difficult to have rigorous definitions with movies like this.

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