Gozu (2003)

Gozu, a title which literally translates to ox-head, is another one of Takashi Miike’s most infamous works in the realms of surreal horror. Whilst it isn’t as well known or recognized as Ichi The Killer or Audition, Gozu still has its fan following as being one of the more unrestrained and completely bizarre movies to come from Takashi Miike. It was originally only planned as a straight-to-DVD release much like Visitor Q, but a very positive reception at the Cannes film festival ensured a theatrical release. The story of Gozu follows a group of Yakuza gangsters, as many of Takashi Miike films do, whereupon one of the Yakuza members (Ozaki) starts to show signs of madness. It is then down to his trusted brother (Minami) to take Ozaki to a disposal site and kill him. Unfortunately, Ozaki dies on the way there and whilst Minami tries to get to a phone to tell his boss what’s happened, Ozaki’s body vanishes, leading Minami on one of the strangest adventures in his life.

The story of Gozu is outrageously bizarre from beginning to end and it definitely proves why one of Takashi Miike’s strongest attributes is his understanding of the awkwardly, comedically surreal. Gozu is a very slow, surreal, yet nonsensical view into the odd. The movie doesn’t even start off normally before subverting expectations as with many a strange film that follows a ‘down the rabbit hole’ type plot; instead the film begins strangely and just begins to get more and more strange with every passing minute. With each new character, there comes a new layer of oddity that makes the movie feel like a Lynchian nightmare from start to finish. That being said, though, Gozu never feels incredibly incoherent. There is a main plot that does evolve as the film progresses despite all of the weirdness that goes on. The story of Minami trying to find his brother carries the film along at a steady pace and the story never finds itself being stuck going around in circles, or being distracted by pointless sequences that mean absolutely nothing in the long run. Every strange thing in this movie makes sense in relation to the overall plot, and each new scene keeps the plot moving. In addition, Gozu follows its own set of coherent rules despite every new oddity and thus a sense of order is achieved as the story progresses. Gozu definitely has a reputation for being very Lynchian in reputation what with its grasp of the bizarre and its fetish for the absurd, but I find that Gozu definitely follows a plot much more coherently than David Lynch movies such as Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway or Eraserhead, and Gozu is far easier to grasp and understand. That’s not to say David Lynch’s movies are inferior to Gozu, but I feel that a bit of separation has to be enforced when talking about ‘Urban Nightmare’ style films such as Mulholland Drive and Gozu.

However, whilst watching the movie, I never felt that Gozu was really in the realms of horror for me despite a lot of marketing and classification calling it a horror movie. There’s a lot of bizarre imagery and a lot of very Miike-esque perverted imagery as well, but the film doesn’t really follow the tropes of horror at all. What surprised me is that Gozu follows a lot more comedy tropes than horror tropes. This mainly comes from the main character: Minami. His story arc is what makes me believe that Gozu is more comedy than horror. Minami, as the trope goes, is the straight man in a bizarre world. His outsider reactions to this world’s strangeness, in contrast to everybody else’s pure acceptance of the strangeness, is what creates a sense of awkward hilarity in contrast to the oddity. Minami is the central character that an audience Is supposed to accept and relate to, and the comedy comes purely from his reactions to what’s going on around him. Minami’s reactions are nervous, dry, and human, similar to how the straight man is played in many a comedy film, similar to other more well-known comedy protagonists such as Neal Page from Planes, Trains and Automobiles or Ray Peterson from The ‘Burbs; films where the ‘comedy’ comes straight from the protagonists’ dry reactions to the weirdness around them.

One of the greatest aspects of Gozu, however, is definitely the acting. Whilst the film contains a few returning actors from other Miike projects, such as Renji Ishibashi who played the disabled man in Audition and Sho Aikawa who played the lead role in both the Zebraman and Dead Or Alive series of films, they all fit their strange roles in Gozu perfectly. The acting is bizarre and it definitely fits the strange mood of the film. Short, one scene characters become incredibly memorable because of the acting talents on display in this movie and the strange roles that they’ve been called upon to perform. Even when the actor on display isn’t trained at all Takashi Miike has a way with cinema that turns their acting fail into a strength of the movie.  For example: in this movie, the Store-owner’s American Wife (the actress isn’t listed in the credits and I cannot find who she is) didn’t know a word of Japanese and couldn’t act, but Takashi Miike decided not to drop her, instead he employed her terrible acting in a clever way that creates one of the most memorable sequences of the film. This serves as testament to Takashi Miike’s sensational directing talents and relationship with his actors, thus making sure he always ends up with a high-quality film. However, the single greatest actor in Gozu has got to be Yuta Sone as Minami. As an actor, it’s incredibly hard to stay completely different and in character when the other actors are playing very outlandish characters. The natural reaction is to match your co-star’s enthusiasm and stage-presence; however, Yuta Sone’s performance is far different than those of his co-stars who play outlandish and bizarre characters. Yuta Sone keeps a toned down and believable performance from beginning to end that not only allows his character to stand out at all times, but it also shows his ability to restrain himself as an actor and stay in character during long shots whilst every other actor is being as outlandish and as odd as they can. This is something that’s quite difficult to do.

In terms of technicality, Gozu is definitely one of Takashi Miike’s rougher looking movies. It’s clearly a low-budget film. It’s not as low-budget as Visitor Q but it definitely doesn’t have the production values of Ichi The Killer or Audition. This shows in the cinematography and film stock as it definitely looks rough in comparison to Takashi Miike’s other films. However, the dvd copy I own looks like it was ripped from a vhs copy. If this is the case then that definitely spoilt the film for me, and thus I can’t comment all too much on the film’s quality, but that’ll be more on the fault of the Tartan distribution company than the film itself. Nonetheless, Gozu does have a few production elements that stand out to me. The cinematography does its job very well and the editing is choppy, yet appropriate. However, the lighting is where the production shines. Gozu is a visually dark film that’s sparsely lit by yellow and orange light, thus giving the film a very otherworldly aesthetic that really accentuates the bizarre plot points throughout the movie.

Ultimately, the SFX of the movie are the strongest point of Gozu. Understand that Gozu is not a gory film, far from it in fact, but it is very sexually perverse and the special effects used throughout the film are used to accentuate a sense of surrealism in the realms of the sexually perverse: such as over-the-top lactation fetish scenes and even a scene where a woman – slowly, graphically and with great pain – gives birth to a fully grown Yakuza man. It’s obvious that special effects were used in these graphically over-the-top sequences because the go above the realms of normality (no-one should ever lactate that much), but on the other hand, the special effects are so damn realistically convincing that it’s hard to suspect any notion of the use of tubes, mechanics and body doubles. I feel that a lot of this comes from the clever use of lighting and camera trickery in order to hide a lot of effects from the audience’s eye, and the result is downright shocking. Maybe not enough to call Gozu a ‘New Age Nasty’, but it’s close.

Gozu is a very interesting and enjoyable movie if one is able to handle strange and perverse content. I can imagine this movie being a joy to some and highly uncomfortable to others because of the more extreme content on display. For me, I found it so awkwardly funny that I felt forced to laugh off some of the more bizarre content on display, but with how the movie is presented, I feel that that is the intention. It’s odd, but carries with it a form of lighthearted-ness in all of its strangeness. In conclusion: definitely not for everyone, but I found myself enjoying the film and it’s weirdly heart-warming ending.

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