Sadly fright-free horror outing from Miike - too weird to build tension, not weird enough to be amusing.
"Everything I'm about to tell you is a joke", proclaims Sho Aikawa at the top end of Japanese auteur Takashi Miike's latest, marketed as a Yakuza horror flick. Quite whether Sho's speaking only to the mob boss he shares the screen with at the time of the statement or he's relaying Miike's warning about the upcoming two hours is a question that's open to debate, albeit a comparatively short one. Moments later Sho's launching a preemptive strike on a passing poodle that he arbitrarily declares to be a Yakuza attack dog, swinging the canine round his head before lobbing the pooch against a wall in an opening that's not so much horrific as horrifically funny.
Miike is hardly a paragon of accessible filmmaking at the best of times, but even by his own standards he's being deliberately obscure. Certain broad themes may be argued to exist in his body of previous work, but finding any sort of point or coherent narrative in Gozu would seem to be a fool's errand. In fact, there's a whole middle section where precious little of any consequence or meaning happens. While those familiar with his output may be expecting a relentless torrent of leftfield happenings, at times Gozu presents itself almost as a standard issue horror flick ala Hideo Nakana's output. The problem with this, and not at all coincidentally the problem with aforementioned quiet stretch is that there's really no incentive for a watching audience to invest to heavily into any tension that's gamely trying to be built, largely because of the expectation for Miike's leftfield shenanigans. Perhaps someone utterly unfamiliar with Miike's prior flick may think differently, but with Sho's dog swinging antics providing as good a crash course as any in his stylistics it's doubtful.
For the sake of appearances I'd better make some attempt at a plot recap, but once the baffling, Mulholland Drive-esque ending unfolds you tend to realise the futility of such endeavours. After Ozaki (DoA veteran Sho Aikawa) is deemed to be as mad as a hatstand after his dog dispatching debacle, Minami (Hideki Sone) is tasked by his Yakuza masters to 'retire' Ozaki somewhere suitably quiet. The fact that they're best friends coupled with the fact that Ozaki saved Minami's life leads to some angst, but that's swiftly dealt with after a road traffic accident sees Ozaki's end come sooner than scripted. Taking the body to with him to a Yakuza owned car / employee scrapyard, he stops at a sleepy town to check in with his boss only for Ozaki's body to mysteriously go missing.
The bulk of the movie concerns Minami trying to track down the AWOL corpse, only to run into some unbalanced locals, strange events and lactating hotel owners. Even with the benefit of watching the actual film, these events are only linked in a tenuous fashion so it's perhaps best to nod politely and skip to the conclusion, except that the ending takes inexplicability to hitherto unheard of heights, so we'll skip that part too. Leaving us at something of an impasse for this paragraph, so lets skip past this also.
While coherency is typically expected from movies, the aforementioned Mulholland Drive teaches us that it's not absolutely necessary to get in the way of enjoyment. Sadly, from a fan of Miike's output this falls into a category that he rarely ventures into - boring. It's a testament to the strength of the opening and the movies noodle bending ending that even the most curmudgeonly could walk out of the cinema with a respect for the man's inventiveness if not his narrative, but stop to think about and there's a good half hour to forty five minutes where little of interest is happening, even with Sone's deft performance of a man baffled by events, his surroundings and the other inhabitants of this strange little place.
In terms of actual screentime, the inestimable Sho Aikawa's role amounts to little more than a cameo, I suppose. However, he brings the same charismatic, mischievous energy to his performance that may bring to mind his character from the second Dead or Alive flick. It's a shame that apart from a consistent and oddly endearing skew from normality, there's little to comment on in Gozu. It's certainly not bad, in the usual sense of the word, it's just a bad Miike film. After the cutting edge psychological jumpiness induced by Audition and the comedic lunacy of The Happiness Of The Katakuris, Gozu is an uneasy half-way house that fails to capture the best aspects of either film in this mildly unsatisfying mix. If you're looking for an escape from the blockbuster season then it's current limited run may provide succour, but in terms of Miike's body of work he's done far better in the past and hopefully will do so in the future too.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Sho Aikawa (Ozaki)
Kimika Yoshino (Female Ozaki)
Shohei Hino (Nose)
Keiko Tomita (Innkeeper)
Harumi Sone (Innkeeper's Brother)
Renji Ishibashi (Boss)