Along with being exhaustingly prolific, one of the things that makes Takashi Miike such an exciting discovery for film fans is his versatility and the unpredictability that comes with it. Despite helming several films a year and covering every genre imaginable, Miike still manages to leave a signature, oftentimes insane stamp on every single film no matter how different it is to the one that came before it. To give a good example of this, 2001 alone saw the release of films like Visitor Q, Ichi the Killer and The Happiness of the Katakuris. Quite the range. There’s also not many directors who would even think of approaching yakuza crime films like Fudoh: The New Generation (1996), The City of Lost Souls (2000) or the Dead or Alive trilogy (1999-2002) the way Miike does. This diversity is ever present in Miike’s horror films be it Audition (1999), The Happiness of the Katakuris (that is if the film is even classifiable at all in terms of genre), One Missed Call (2003), Imprint (2006) and most recently Over Your Dead Body (2014). Then there’s Gozu. Made the same year as One Missed Call which again is a perfect example of just how varied Miike is while working in the same genre, Gozu is one of Miike’s most abstract films along with being one of his best and like most everything in Miike’s oeuvre, mind-bogglingly original.
Low ranking yakuza Minami is given the job of killing Ozaki, one of his superiors in fear of Ozaki’s mental instability being detrimental for business. Minami isn’t exactly up to the task though as Ozaki is very much a mentor to Minami and the two share a deep bond. A mishap on the road however leads to Ozaki being inadvertently mortally wounded, although after Minami makes a pit stop to clear his thoughts Ozaki’s body mysteriously disappears from Minami’s car. Completely baffled, Minami sets out on the increasingly surreal journey to find Ozaki encountering one strange character and situation after another while also uncovering some truths about himself along the way.
Given the material, its inevitable that Gozu (literally “Cow head”) would be compared to the works of the David’s Lynch and Cronenberg and Miike himself acknowledges those comparisons. There are indeed moments where Gozu resembles films like Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) and Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991) however ultimately the brand of surrealism on display in Gozu is quintessentially Miike. Here Miike takes the slow burn approach ala Audition and fuses it with yakuza elements along with the absurdity of The Happiness of the Katakuris sans the musical numbers. Some of the situations Minami finds himself in are so over the top in their bizarreness that the film crosses over into comedic territory while still being unsettling due to their sheer oddness. And odd is it ever. Men with half the pigment in their face missing, a deranged brother and lactating sister inn keeping team, the titular cow headed demon, these are the types that inhabit the world of Gozu, not to mention a climatic scene which will give even the most jaded viewers something they’ve never seen before. Like Lynch, Miike often gets accused of weirdness for weirdness sake by those who can’t see past the abstractions and there’s much more to Gozu than a bunch of random strangeness, although it is the bewildering nature of the film that makes Minami’s search for Ozaki all the more engaging and the flashbacks of Minami and Ozaki also make the film a non too subtle exploration of Minami coming to grips with his own sexuality.
Originally Gozu was never intended to play in theatres as it was designed a “V-Cinema” direct to video/DVD project in Japan. Thankfully that didn’t happen as although the film did end up going direct to video in Japan, the film ended up playing at the Director’s Fortnight in Cannes and it wound up playing other festivals as well such as the Toronto International Film Festival and South By Southwest. The film actually did have a theatrical run in the US as well. Perhaps nowadays direct to video films aren’t looked down upon as much as they may have been in the past with the numerous changes in the film industry but in Japan V-Cinema hasn’t really had the stigma attached to it as it has in other countries, although Miike claims (perhaps jokingly) in an interview on Cinema Epoch’s 2-disc special edition DVD of Gozu that his video productions are usually seen only by young kids in the Japanese countryside. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Gozu otherwise they’re be a good chance of it never leaving Japan. As is the case with the majority of Miike’s genre efforts, Gozu may only appeal to a select audience and it may even be a bit much to take for some Miike fans which is saying something but it’s a testament to one of the most consistently interesting and creative cinematic minds still working today.