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Gokudô kyôfu dai-gekijô (Gozu)

(2004) *** 1/2 Unrated
129 min. Pathfinder Pictures. Director: Takashi Miike. Cast: Hideki Sone, Sho Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Harumi Sone, Shohei Hino.

Anyone who has seen a Takashi Miike film is bound to take the vivid memory to his or her grave. Miike's balls-out, gonzo style takes no prisoners, and though he's been known to dabble in brighter styles, like musicals or kid's stories, Miike usually ends up spewing bodily fluids, stretching orifices to their unseemly limits, and gleefully blurring the line between sex and torture. Miike's films nod to Seijun Suzuki's outré head-scratchers and the dream-like narratives, darkly funny characterizations, and indelible imagery of David Lynch, though it's impossible to mistake a Miike film for the work of any other filmmaker.

The Japanese director's latest film to reach these shores is Gozu, an ostensible yakuza drama which takes bizarre and supernatural turns. As usual with Miike, the less you know before seeing the film, the better, though I can tell you that after seeing Gozu, you'll never look at a ladle the same way. Ostensibly, Gozu concerns the search—by young gangster Minami—for Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), Minami's yakuza Aniki (meaning "big brother"). Ozaki's erratic, paranoid behavior has weakened his position in the yakuza, putting Minami (Hideki Sone)—who owes the man his life—between a rock and a hard place. Charged with putting Ozaki in the yakuza "dump," Onami ends up losing track of his mentor, dead or alive.

Minami's search takes him in and out of conventional reality, with dreams that may be real and apparent transmigration (the passing of the soul into another vessel). Miike takes the journey patiently, ever ready to spring a mad interlude. The befuddling appearance of an attractive and horny young woman The title of the film refers to a demon with a cow's head and man's body; in Buddhist mythology, the Gozu guarded the gates of hell. Of course, the director himself serves as porter of Hell-Gate for the audience; he makes a scary and whimsical guide.

In the nightmare world of thugs, complimentary chawanmushi (hot egg custard) can make one sick, an American liquor saleswman reads cue cards, and crotchless panties make a decidedly unusual gift from one gangster to another. Miike serves up bizarre characters and perverted humor (like the innkeepers' ideas of customer service). The sexual harrassment of the inn proprietress, a fading flower with milk-squirting breasts, is only the beginning for the hapless Minami. He's not in Kansas anymore, or as the locals keep asking him, "You're not from Nagoya, are yah?"

Miike lays on unearthly hues—including his favored greenish-yellow—and bristling sound laced with distortions and a shadowy bass score. The absurdist staging suggests a kind of magic surrealism; Miike literally turns homosexual panic inside out. Gozu culminates in an outrageous climax by which the director threatens to upstage his own Audition (a great place for Miike neophytes to start). Though Gozu began as a straight-to-video project, a gobsmacked reception at Cannes assured a limited theatrical release. Miike calls Gozu an entry in the genre of GOKUDO (Yakuza Grande Horror Theatre) and feigns surprise at audience laughter. But he also signs his director's note, "A love is a sorrow. Please enjoy my sorrow. (I think I am crazy). Thank you." Ask yourself this: can I afford not to see this movie?

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