According to the press notes, the title character of Gozu is “a demon said to exist in hell. It has the head of a cow and body of human [sic].” But it isn't necessary to know the whys and wherefores of Japanese mythology to appreciate the movie. Gozu the character may be the gatekeeper to hell, but he's almost a throwaway gag in director Takashi Miike's film, which is more concerned with lactating innkeepers, drag queens, demented yakuza, and men in women's bodies (in more ways than one, if you catch my drift). Having a giant cow-god show up for one scene to lick our protagonist in the face is just creamy icing on the cake of dementia.
Miike makes, on average, approximately five films a year, and many of them –unsurprisingly — have a slapdash quality, like he made them up as he went along. So while movies like Ichi the Killer and Dead or Alive have great moments, they could be a lot better if someone would actually sit down with them for a year or so and carefully edit them into coherent stories. But in that time, Miike could be making five more flicks, and a case can certainly be made that one learns more by doing than by studying. Gozu, however, is different. Like Miike's previous art-house hit, Audition, it gives the viewer the feeling that much more care went into it. None of the moments seems wasted. And though both Audition and Gozu end in a mind-blowing gross-out that's far more drastic than anything else in the movie, they're quite different films. If you've doubted thus far that Miike's got the goods (this writer's hand is sheepishly raised), prepare to be proven wrong. Forgive the crudity, but Gozu is freakin' awesome.
The story begins with some vague, snowy image on a TV screen, then proceeds into a yakuza meeting, wherein loose cannon Ozaki (Kimika Yoshino) tells the boss that what he's about to do is a joke, and then points at a woman outside who has a little dog. Ozaki proclaims that it's a special yakuza-attacking dog and a direct threat to the boss' life, so he runs outside and swings the pooch around in the air, smashing it into the wall until the make-believe threat has been neutralized (at this moment, you will probably know if Gozu is for you or not).
Ozaki's penchant for such strange outbursts is disturbing even to his brother Minami (Hideki Sone, of Miike's Agitator). Whether or not the two are actual brothers or just “brothers in crime,” the bond is there, so Minami's reluctant to do anything. But when they're out on the road, and Ozaki spontaneously decides that a nearby car is a special yakuza-attacking car, Minami slaps his brother's head into the sidewalk, apparently killing him. Next stop: the body-disposal operation run by the mob in Nagoya.
First, though, Minami needs to figure out how to get there, so he stops by a local diner to use the phone, only to find that it's being monopolized by a yokel whose conversation consists of endless repetitions of the phrase “It was hot, yah. I was wearing a T-shirt, yah.” On his way back to the car, Minami finds that Ozaki's body has disappeared.
As if what has already transpired isn't odd enough, the search for Ozaki will lead Minami on a descent into madness, from an inn that drips milk from the ceiling to a strange guide named Nose who has half his face painted white, though he claims it's natural pigmentation. What Minami eventually finds isn't quite what he expected, and it's doubtful anyone in the audience will expect it either. Suffice it to say that gender identity is a major theme of the story — even Gozu itself is confused, having the body of a male human and the head of a female cow.
Numerous auteur directors have been inspired by David Lynch, and it's become de rigueur for critics to describe any new film containing any surreal elements as “Lynchian.” Miike, however, is one of the few who not only get Lynch's sense of surrealism but also seem to understand his sense of humor — like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, Gozu tweaks the stereotypical iconography of a small town, imagining all kinds of strangeness both comical and frightening lurking beneath the veneer. Japanese viewers will almost certainly get more out of it, as one imagines that some of the archetypes here have familiar cultural points of reference, but there's plenty to amuse anyone with a healthy taste for the absurd.
In addition to Lynch's work, Miike seems to have taken Lars von Trier's The Kingdom to heart, especially its disturbing climax. Von Trier often comes off as humorless and heavy-handed, but The Kingdom, recently remade for American TV by Stephen King, was a rare mix of satire and horror, and, well … fans who remember Udo Kier's key scene will be more prepared than most for Gozu.
Really, words can't do any justice for a film this odd. Just see it.