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Cow-headed Freaks

After the first half-hour or so of most Takashi Miike movies, it is clear that we are not expected to experience it as a story unfolding seamlessly on its own. What we are asked to relish is the play of the writer-director’s imagination as it hops around from one notion to another, exactly as the mood strikes him. For all the inflated importance they have acquired in the minds of many fans, and some critics, the various disruptions Miike visits upon his stories, and upon his audience, serve mainly to focus attention on the manipulating intelligence behind the scenes. They’re a fancy way of yelling, “Look at me!”

The designation “yakuza horror theater,” which Miike has himself applied to his new film, Gozu, seems designed to cover a multitude of whims. Which is good, because he has a lot of them. Miike may also be responding here to complaints about his warped gangster pictures Ichi the Killer (2001) and Graveyard of Honor (2002), in which Japan’s lionized master of extreme cinema violated the conventional boundaries between genres with lingering scenes of torture and arterial spew that would make sense only in a horror movie. In a way, it’s a shame that he’s now announcing these aesthetic transgressions in advance — it deprives them of some of their kick.

Miike’s more obviously avant-garde efforts, such as the cannibal musical The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and the gross-out comedy Visitor Q (2001), are transgressive in more predictable ways, and therefore much less interesting — tedious, in fact, when they aren’t simply gross. Gozu seems to represent a search for a middle ground between Miike’s two characteristic approaches — the recombinant genre movie and the John Waters–inflected underground comedy — or perhaps a reach for a new creative synthesis.

In practice, Gozu (named after the cow-headed demon who guards the gates to hell) falls into three sections that seem to be only loosely interconnected. The relatively straightforward and promisingly well-observed opening sections convey the discomfort of conscientious young gangster Minami (Hideki Sone) when he is assigned the messy task of transporting a revered “older brother,” Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), to the junkyard in an outlying suburb that functions as his Tokyo crew’s “disposal site.” This 20-minute episode may be Miike’s most effectively sustained piece of conventional narrative since the sly horror film Audition (1999), but it does have its freaky side: Ozaki is being eliminated because he has begun descending rapidly from everyday yakuza sociopathology into literal paranoid insanity. The section ends rather quickly and abruptly, on a note of slapstick black comedy as Minami himself inadvertently whacks the condemned man, then loses the corpse.

At this point, the dead Ozaki’s dementia seems to take over the movie. A long central section is unmistakably David Lynchian, as Minami mopes around a suburban backwater looking for the misplaced cadaver. Along the way, he encounters one depressively alienated eccentric local yokel after another in sequences that may have been calculated to evoke a crushing sense of dislocation and unease, but that are instead mostly repetitious and annoying. (The only really distinctive note is a return to what seems to be a personal fetish, first indulged in Visitor Q, for lactating elderly women.) I take it as a good sign, however, in terms of Miike’s grasp of reality as a moviemaker that, in the midst of all this, he finally allows Minami to explode with frustration. I had been growing increasingly impatient with Minami and his glum passivity — at this point, I wanted to hug him.

The third section begins with the arrival on the scene of an attractive young woman (Kimika Yoshino) with big, round anime eyes who insists that she herself is the missing Ozaki, and reaches its climax in a scene that will trigger Udo Kier flashbacks in anyone with functioning short-term cinematic memory. There follows a brief coda depicting perhaps the creepiest ménage a trois ever imagined, for which Miike alone deserves at least a footnote in movie history.

As to his position in the main text, check back in 30 years.

GOZU | Directed by TAKASHI MIIKE | Written by SAKICHI SATO | Produced by KANA KOIDO and HARUMI SONE | Released by Pathfinder Pictures | At the Nuart


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