World cinema’s favorite grindhouse workhorse, Takashi Miike, continues to expel his speedball fantasies at a rate of about seven movies per year. At this point it’s not so much the man’s Fassbinder-squared pace that astonishes as the sheer deranging variety of his output: Recent films include a cannibal musical, a superhero kids’ adventure, and a quasi-Ealing economic-bust comedy. Given that he’s less craftsman than inspired orchestrator of grosstastic set pieces, Miike partisans are used to forgiving his movies a certain air of distraction and sloppiness. But the splendidly entertaining Gozu, a straight-to-video Japanese release that snuck into Cannes last year and has been leaving a trail of damp, crusty stains on the festival circuit since, is likely his most cunning and controlled work since the sex-panic Venus flytrap Audition. The mode is Freudian comic horror, but the symptoms are for the most part crassly distinctive. Gozu‘s sinister hicks and transmigratory twists may be hand-me-down Lynch, and its gynecological showstopper owes a blatant debt to Cronenberg, but the slobbering bovine minotaur, the violently flowing breast milk, and the, um, soup-ladle rectal electrocution are pure Miike.
Timid junior yakuza Minami (Hideki Sone) is ordered by his sex-crazed boss (Renji Ishibashi) to dispose of an elder colleague, Ozaki (Miike veteran Sho Aikawa), who’s given to fits of hair-trigger paranoia—the opening sequence sees him smashing a chihuahua into a plate-glass window (“It’s a trained yakuza attack dog”). Minami’s discomfort about offing his revered “brother” becomes moot when, en route to the giant dump in Nagoya that doubles as gangster disposal facility, he steps too hard on the brakes and fatally injures Ozaki. Of course, the corpse promptly vanishes . . .
In place of Miike’s more familiar ultraviolence, the comparatively mild Gozu substitutes a simmering absurdism (enhanced by Koji Endo’s rumbling, dissonant score). Screenwriter Sakichi Sato—who collaborated with Miike on the tongue-slicing, skin-peeling Ichi the Killer, scripted the mannequin-starring cult series The Fuccon Family, and played the obsequious servant Charlie Brown in Kill Bill Vol. 1—has a knack for deadpan weirdness. Minami’s search for the missing body turns into an amusingly hazardous sleepwalk, complete with petting-zoo supporting cast: a gnomic sage with half-painted whiteface, the unconvincingly cross-dressed waitstaff of a coffee shop (one played by Sato), an American-expat sake retailer who haltingly recites her lines off cue cards, and a middle-aged, lactating innkeeper who bottles her unstoppable secretions.
The monstrous scrap heap proves a fitting metaphor—and not just because the movie recycles tropes and themes from Miike’s Audition, Visitor Q, and The Happiness of the Katakuris (a “Miike Madness” festival, incidentally, is underway at the new ImaginAsian theater in midtown). Clammy with erotic unease, Gozu reveals itself as a mucky trawl through the unconscious of a virgin hero, who exists in a vague state of humiliation and arousal. The massively hung and seriously hung-up Minami’s sexual repression becomes increasingly central. Waking from a dream of a cow-headed man giving him a big sloppy tongue kiss, he meets a lovely young lady who claims to be Ozaki and who’s all too keen to rid him of his virginity. Short-circuiting his scenario’s Freudian implications, Miike uncorks a stunning conclusion. In the space of a few minutes, with the invaluable help of a pair of Givenchy red-lace crotchless panties, he proceeds from sweet defloration to nutty castration nightmare to what for now will stand as the mother of all mutant-birth scenes.