31 Days of Hell: Gozu

Andrew reviews Takashi Miike's bizarro freakout, Gozu.

Takashi Miike remains at the forefront of extreme and surreal Japanese horror.  From the breach of contract finale concluding Audition to the buckets of blood, gore and blades in Ichi the Killer, the man quite simply is the very definition of a punk rock filmmaker.  Blasting away at genres while exploding cliches to both comedic and horrific effect, he's arguably the Japanese equivalent of Paul Verhoeven with a strong dose of David Lynch.  Almost always provocative and dangerous, the prolific auteur has since slowed down his output having taken on larger budgets and producing more mainstream fare.  But when he was still cranking out straight-to-video V-cinema pictures at a geometric rate, some of his most wildly innovative, outrageously shocking and inspired creations emerged from this breakneck process.  While debatable which offering of the bunch is his most challenging and closest to his soul, for my money his purest and densest work yet goes to his 2003 V-cinema turned theatrical horror show Gozu.

"Where's the bathroom?"
Like Lynch's greatest work it treads a shaky tightrope walk between the hilariously wacky and the obscenely horrific, often at the same time.  Simultaneously a character study and freeform outlet for Miike's own perverse obsessions, Gozu begins ostensibly as a yakuza picture which at first seems like a cut-and-dried tale of a conflicted hitman.  As our hero Minami (Hideki Stone) contemplates whacking his mentor Ozaki (Miike regular Sho Aikawa) at the behest of a feared Yakuza boss, the film shifts gears and takes on a Twin Peaks inspired foray into the strangeness of the small town he encountersBefore you know what to make of Gozu, it quickly develops into an unbridled psychosexual freak out involving lactating women, a man in underpants with a cow's head and a truly disturbing sequence where a small young woman gives birth to an adult.  Don't get me started on the Yakuza Attack Dog scene, which is liable to shock and appall many while eliciting uncontrollable cackling from others.  You know you're watching a Takashi Miike film when you're not sure whether to laugh or cry.

"Here I come to save the day!"
Written by Ichi the Killer screenwriter Sakichi Sato and directed with gleeful abandon by Miike, Gozu (much like the equally madcap Izo) is a deeply insane experience with surreal provocation that feels right at home with the grotesquerie of Cronenberg.  Also clearly influenced by Lynch is Miike's sound design which includes arguably the most atmospheric ambient soundscape in the director's canon, allowing viewers to soak in the densely layered dread. 

But that's not all there is to this waking nightmare.  It's also among Miike's most focused character studies, providing us with a leading man to navigate the madness whose own journey is surprisingly as relatable as it is revealing.  The crazier Gozu gets, the closer we find ourselves connecting with Minami's confusion and fear.  Some theorists have interpreted Gozu as allegorical for buried guilt over homosexual tendencies, and although a sound interpretation it doesn't explain the seemingly endless series of bizarre and cringe worth transgressions occurring throughout.  More than anything, with Gozu Miike has managed to create a fully realized netherworld in broad daylight dripping with unease and tension.

Like the best horror films, it is less interested in gore than the uncanny.  Take for instance an abstract visual idea as peculiar as a man with a cow's head licking another man's face.  It sounds absurd on paper but in motion it is our worst nightmare come to life.  Despite all that's been said, I've essentially explained nothing about the film and the actual act of watching it will provide even fewer answers to the questions it poses.  It is a state of mind with many disconnected images that will burrow beneath your skin in summation.  Most horror films rely on jump scares with loud sound effects and the archetypical ghost or psycho killer with an axe yet very view manage to create a genuine fear of the unknown.  

While clearly the product of Miike's own idiosyncracies, Gozu might actually be his most frightening film for the vistas it manages to inject into our minds.  Like any bad dream, it remains unresolved and leaving us to pick up the pieces.  Even if you come away from Gozu feeling as though your hands have closed on air, there aren't many J-horror films this warped, deeply disturbing and occasionally oddly hilarious as this one.  Whether you can admit to getting Gozu or not, you won't soon forget this nutball shocker after seeing it.


- Andrew Kotwicki