|Pros: Marvelously weird tricksterish romp – Miike at his best and displaying the purest essence of his jokester soul. An insane trip that actually managed to surprise and leaves you wondering how the hell you go to where you get to.
Oh Miike, you devil! You absolute devil! You’re a sadist – a cruel perverted sadist with your fingers in our hair, poking us a pricking us and cutting us and goosing us exactly where we least expect it. And what sort of grin do you wear as you find ticklish spots that we didn’t know we had and where did you study to discover just how deep you can cut us before it becomes murder and you get into trouble? Miike – you are a fiend! An insane fiend! You are – you are . . . . Whatever you are, I love you for it!
Who could predict that by the end of Gozu we would be seeing . . . but no, I must not. The viewer has to discover for themselves just where that twisting turning rabbit hole takes you. Let me just call Gozu a Yakuza movie and leave it at that. *ahem* You know – Yakuza? The famous tattooed Japanese mob/mafia/gangsters/gang/organised criminals/whatever they are. So yes – a familiar Japanese gangster movie. *ahem* Perfectly safe to watch. *ahem* So go on – buy it now and watch it. Late at night would be good. *ahem* After a few drinks of something strong would be ideal. And preferably with some mildly squeamish company. *ahem* You trust me don’t you?
Seriously though – Gozu is a trip. A trip like no other I have ever seen. Forget Mulholland Drive! Gozu has a vaguely similar complex coiling twisting structure to that but it is infinitely stranger and also far more funny. Jet black funny. Forget also any other Miike movie that you may have seen. You only have to see a few to realise just how utterly unpredictable this man is, with the only thing uniting almost all of his creations being his wicked sense of inventiveness and his maverick humour. In fact – just forget EVERYTHING, ok! Life, the universe and everything. Whatever you may expect from the Yakuza connotations that frame this film, that is also quickly demolished and we are left spinning out of control through what can only be called ‘pure distilled weird’. It is blackly comical surrealism where cow-headed demons can mysteriously appear, where the keeper of the hotel you are in is a lactating-obsessed old lady who serves up her own milk at breakfast and where a woman can give birth to a fully-grown full-sized man and live to tell the tale.
It begins ‘normally’ enough, with a Yakuza named Ozaki who seems to be going mad – at any rate exhibiting behaviour that is strange even for Yakuza. And the Boss makes the decision to get rid of him by sending him to the ‘Yakuza Disposal Dump’ (that’s what it says) in Nagoya. Unfortunately the person assigned to take him there is someone very close to him – the young Yakuza Minami. Unfortunately again, things begin to get strange when Ozaki is accidentally killed in a rather minor car incident. Apparently. Or maybe not. Or maybe is and not together. At any rate, the corpse vanishes. Sending the increasingly bewildered Minami on an ever-spiralling quest to find it again. A quest that just gets stranger . . . and stranger . . . and STRANGER. Further and further down the rabbit hole. In the end, when it is all over, you can discover an actually quite simple story going on if you look for it – but no more details will you get from me about cow-headed demons and lactating landladies! You must watch it for yourself now and experience this delirious spiral for yourself.
This incredibly weird weirdness is actually told with a very sparse and restrained pallet with very few real special effects in this film. What there is though is very nicely done indeed (and believe me must have involved some very game actors and actresses!). And with just the right touch of hokey about them to complement the generally hokey style of the whole thing. Hideki Sone’s performance as Minami is also superb and also brilliantly manages to avoid overdoing things in this crazy spiral. And also the music – very eerie and icy modernist cello (or is it metal blade on blackboard?) – adds a very nice touch to the film.
Miike is not like other directors . . . . err, what have I just said? I think that is blatantly obvious. What I MEANT was that while most directors have a distinctly recognisable area in which they work, Miike seems happy diving into almost anything and somehow making it his own. His main characteristic is that he HAS no characteristic in that sense, yet at the same time he has stamped his own unique stamp onto almost everything that he touches. His films have stretched from the horrific Audition and the strange stilted comedy The Happiness of the Katakuris to the incredibly weird English language Japanese/American hybrid horror that is Imprint, the gloriously fantastical children’s fantasy romp of The Great Yokai War (though believe me, we are a LONG way from Disney here) and the off-beat superhero movie of Zebraman and numerous yakuza and martial arts films – to, heaven help us, the incest- and necrophilia-ridden ‘family comedy’ of Visitor Q and the hyper-violent Ichi the Killer*. What can you make of an output like that?
Well – where Miike is concerned, one can really benefit from getting to know him a bit I think. Any of these films coming at you from nowhere can leave you shell-shocked and very confused – and possibly physically sick if you had the misfortune to get hit by one of his more extreme efforts first. But the unifying characteristic is there and it is this very unpredictability that is his great charm and great genius. Like some strange puppet master, he moves behind all these different pop-culture or art-house or pornographic styles (meaningless terms here really) and he makes them all dance to his own tune. And once you begin to get a handle on the devilish personality behind all these extraordinarily different films, then suddenly things come clearer and one begins to develop an appreciation for this weird world as a whole. The realisation that there is indeed a very curious sort of art going on. An art that is hard to compare with anything else. The realisation comes that Miike is basically a huge joker and that his sadistic and perverted delight is to torment and surprise and that nothing – NOTHING – is too much for achieving that end. If Audition leaves your head ringing, or Ichi the Killer makes your gorge rise or Happiness of the Katakuris is just one huge WTF? then he is achieving his prankster’s ambition as this illusive and unpredictable (and dangerous and devilish) sprite of Japanese pop culture. His fluid fighting style (sorry – artistic style) is something unlike any other director that I can think of. Even if some of the individual films leave one reeling and queasy and go so far beyond the pale that strange new states of matter are formed in the intense pressure, I cannot help but be fascinated by the overall entity that is Takashi Miike. A dark dancing devil in modern cinema.
* As one might clearly expect, Miike runs up against many censorship issues in his work and much trouble with the very primitive Japanese censorship requirements – in fact it seems an ongoing battle (witness the awful dvd release of Visitor Q, which is almost unwatchable due to endless bobbing black spots on the screen). Fortunately this doesn’t seem to effect Gozu much and he managed to circumvent the problems with only a little awkwardness and it doesn’t get in the way of things too badly. Interestingly, Miike’s own attitude to this was rather revealed in his TV miniseries MPD Psycho, which many people found to be censored beyond a point when the film was still comprehensible. However, it appears that there is more to this than there at first seems. It seems that in this case, in the face of the requirements (which are basically censoring images of genitalia, nothing else – which of course are far more disturbing than any violent death or blood and guts!), he finally flipped and decided that if they wanted censorship, he would give it to them. He deliberately slung the screen pixelation and blurring around far beyond what was needed, blurring out EVERYTHING that was remotely other than ordinary to make the point how annoying and stupid this whole thing is. Considering the way this obscures a lot of the crucial plot elements and generally makes following what is going on considerably harder (Miike’s extreme images and actions are usually a very integral part of the plot rather than gratuitous addendums), you could almost say he wrecked his own work in protest. But it also makes the censorship a part of the artwork in a way – so perhaps it is not without interest after all! That trick alone means that MPD Psycho might be worthy of a Strange Review sometime – but it is so frustrating as well that I am not sure I can be bothered with either that or Visitor Q. I have been unable to track down any hint of uncensored versions existing of either of them so it could be that both these films have been irreparably wrecked.
And Gozu’s place in all this? I think, if I had to attempt the impossible task of picking one film as an introduction to Miike’s work, it might be this one. It is my favourite because it is the best demonstration I have seen yet (I haven’t seen all his films by a long way) of the sheer inventive weirdery at the heart of his work and of his sense of humour. Perhaps, in a way, it is also the purest of his films (that I have seen). It is a voyage through his twisting brain that is not occluded by a strong allegiance to any genre or to the specific agenda of going as far as humanly possible to freak or gross you out. Instead – hummm, no way can I call this more subtle (subtle and Miike in the same sentence? No – don’t think so!), but this is somehow the best essence of Miike’s corkscrew mind I have seen – Miike down the rabbit hole. Distilled and served in a small brown bottle with the instruction “swallow with milk”.