You know how some movies have rich subtext that makes sense of the surface narrative? This movie is all subtext and no surface narrative. What the hell is it? Did that make sense to anyone without a university degree in Whacked Out Cinema?
Its original Japanese title means Yakuza Horror Theatre: Cow's Head, by the way, which presumably means the Minotaur scene. "Gozu" means "cow's head". I've seen it claimed that this film is based on Japanese and Greek mythology, which is interesting and might even be true. However more fundamentally it's also Takashi Miike and Sakichi Sato going even further out of their trees than they were with Ichi the Killer
It starts out like another Dead or Alive
film, with Sho Aikawa as a yakuza alongside Riki Takeuchi, albeit also a ton of other Miike regulars. Aikawa's bonkers. He explains that a chihuahua in the street outside is a trained killer of yakuza, then perpetrates a scene that animal lovers might find distressing. It's funny. Their gang's boss (Renji Ishibashi in white like the Pope or God) decides that Aikawa needs to be taken for a ride by Yuta "Hideki" Sone, after which the story really kicks in. Sone has strong loyalties both to the gang and to Aikawa, who tests him in a scene that you'd expect to be all intense close-ups and yet Miike shoots as an inscrutable and rather beautiful static long shot.
Shortly afterwards, a body's gone missing. From here on, things get weird.
To be honest, it tried my patience. I hadn't worked out what it was about, so to me it felt like random nonsense for the best part of two hours, albeit redeemed by an ending so bonkers that I thought it was brilliant. This was originally going to be an action film for cinemas, but unfortunately there was a problem with the money and so Miike completely rewrote the script in a week to turn it into a straight-to-video whacko-fest. Many scenes were improvised. The narrative barely exists. What you get instead includes:
(a) Gay subtext, with the entire film almost making sense if regarded as a metaphor for Sone's sexual awakening. He's coming to terms with his homosexuality and his love for Aikawa. (He also first masturbated to a photo of dogs, but I wouldn't worry about that if I were you.) There are also ambiguously gay characters, such as the guide.
(b) Perversion with kitchen implements. Remember the sexuality in Ichi the Killer
? That's a bit like this. Warning: this film will upset anyone who likes to imagine yakuza as manly man's men.
(c) In addition, one of the strongest sexual presences in the movie is a granny who shows her breasts, makes offers that would have been tempting half a century ago and who breast-feeds her brother. This old lady also has the same name as our protagonist's mother (Keiko). That was a somewhat disturbing hotel.
(d) The cafe of transvestites.
(e) A motif of free food arriving that you hadn't ordered, which may or may not then make you throw up. There's also some dialogue in goofily overdone Nagoya-ben. Tomoko cringed.
(f) A "break the fourth wall" moment, in which the Russian actress is so obviously incapable of speaking Japanese that Miike shows us her cue cards on the wall. No explanation, of course.
(g) Death and rebirth, squared.
Miike has called it a combination of a yakuza and a horror film. The latter's a good way to approach it, I think. It you watch it simply as a yakuza film, you'll think it's broken beyond repair. However a horror film can be less literal and more psychological. You'll appreciate the accumulation of disturbing incidents in a different way, while the Cronenberg-like finale in particular can't be taken literally at all.
That last reel is incredible, by the way. It has one of Miike's best deaths ever. Brilliant. I was howling. After that, it turns into some demented combination of Freud and the Brothers Grimm. It didn't make me like the entire film, with which I'd had trouble, but I definitely liked the ending.
There's also a father-and-son pairing in the film. To quote Miike... "The father, Harumi Sone, he is an actor in the film, but also he's the executive producer of the film. How Gozu started is, like, Gozu was started by him. He wanted to make a regular yakuza film because he's an old actor and he doesn't have any roles he can play these days. No one really makes traditional yakuza films any more. So he brought me this idea, 'I want to make a yakuza film and I want to use my son to be part of the film.'" This is a fun idea, but unfortunately the son (Yuta Sone) is an unexpressive actor playing an unlikeable thug. He also doesn't really have much on-screen to do with his father, but giving him something would essentially have been an in-joke.
It's a freaky film. It was never meant for anything but straight-to-video, but it went down a storm at Cannes and so ended up getting theatrical releases internationally. Amazing. You'll have to go a long way to find a film that fights so violently against literal interpretation. The most common audience reaction will be to stop even looking for meaning. The film has gleeful impossibilities, e.g. Sone using a sketch for identification that could be anyone... and people recognise it! Sometimes it's funny. I laughed at the bit where Sone asks a policeman for directions to a yakuza gang. It's oozing sex, none of it even remotely vanilla. It's not as shocking or powerful as something like Ichi the Killer
, but it's making that film look downright straightforward.