According to the film, Gozu means “Cow’s Head”. This is as much of an explanation for what goes on in the movie as you’re likely to get and if you think I’m being a little cryptic, just watch the movie. This is Takashi Miike doing David Lynch, and as he’s shown before, the man is a genius. He surpasses Lynch in pure weirdness while retaining a certain inner logic to the proceedings. Something that I feel Lynch forgets to do at times.
We open at a disastrous Yakuza meeting in a restaurant where mob henchman Ozaki shows himself to be a wee bit unstable. He sees a Chihuahua, takes the Boss aside and informs him as a “joke” that the little furball with eyes is in fact, a Yakuza attack dog that’s been sent to kill him. Boss Azamawari is not too convinced of his subbordinate’s logic so Ozaki takes it upon himself to kill the dog before it can kill them. What follows is one of the film’s more humorous set pieces where Ozaki pummels the dog to pieces and swings it around over his head with the leash as the pup’s owners shriek in horror.
To say that the Boss was a wee bit disturbed by the turn of events in the restaurant is an understatement. He sends Ozaki and his brother Minumi to the town of Nagoya to check up on another crew. We soon learn that the real mission isn’t to check up on anything but to dispose of Ozaki forever in the town dump.
What follows is a little road trip through a Franz Kafka netherworld.
Ozaki dies before Minumi can kill him, or does he? We’re not sure since his body disappears once they arrive in Nagoya. There we discover that no phones work, the other crew’s address is wrong, leading Minumi on a wild goose chase to find them. The locals are of no help since they all seem to be even more insane than Ozaki was. Throughout, Minumi tries to keep his cool and find Ozaki’s body.
Surrealism, when done well, can be used to set up incredible mood pieces without having to sacrifice plot and this is what Miike does here. Yes, it’s weird but never nonsensical. There’s a perverted kind of logic behind it all. To a certain extent it reminds me of Martin Scorcese’s “After Hours” where everything that came before turns back on itself. Every conversation or item or event, no matter how small, returns to torment our hero with a vengeance. This kind of approach also has the added benefit of convincing the audience that the events could maybe kinda sorta maybe happen. Which means that no matter what, you retain a kind of empathy for the hero and his plight.
Throughout the ordeal, Minumi shows incredible composure. Reacting to every new weirdness with an almost inhuman restraint. Like when the local hotel’s landlady offers to find Ozumi using her brother as a spiritual medium. Instead of just running out of the room and the town as fast as he possibly can, Minumi accepts. Albeit, it’s obvious he does this more out of grim desperation rather than any real conviction. It’s kind of hard to trust anything a woman who earlier offered to breastfeed you says. Of course, like everything else, it goes wrong in a way that I don’t have the heart to reveal here. You’ll just have to watch it for yourself.
During Minumi’s investigation he finds that his brother was seen walking around the town and even stayed in the room above him at the hotel. Further questioning of the town locals leads him to a rice shop, an American woman and a man with a cow’s head.
One of the things that people rarely mention about Miike is his subtlety. Everyone mentions how over the top he is, but his true talent lies in not losing sight of tiny details amidst the insane plots of his movies. Early in the film, Ozaki mentions that Boss Azamawari’s taste for women will be his undoing. It’s not a big scene and a lesser director wouldn’t have bothered with such quiet asides, preferring to focus on the weirdness. Miike knows that without a few moments that anchor you to the real world, the surrealism can’t work because you (and the characters) will have nothing to compare the strange goings on to any kind of established reality. Ozaki’s words make a twisted kind of sense when, much later in the film, a beautiful woman appears claiming to be Ozaki.
If there’s anything to find flaw with, it’s that the very last few minutes feel a little rushed. As if Miike had decided that enough is enough, let’s finish this and move on to my next film. However, we’re talking two minutes or so that don’t really detract from the brilliance that went on before.
“Gozu” is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a cow’s head. If you think that this last statement doesn’t make any sense, just watch the movie.