A vengeful girlfriend saws off her boyfriend’s leg with piano wire. A sadomasochist slices off his own tongue with a knife. A gangster launches a fireball from his hands, a cop shoots it down with a rocket launcher, and the ensuing explosion destroys all of Japan. This is the bizarre world of Takashi Miike in his three most well-known films of the late 1990s and early 2000s—Audition (1999), Ichi the Killer (2001), and Dead or Alive (1999).
These three movies marked a turning point for the Japanese filmmaker, who had been toiling away in international obscurity making direct-to-video films for a decade. Dead or Alive brought him to the attention of Japanese cinema fans abroad, while Audition put him on the world stage with screenings at the Vancouver and Rotterdam International Film Festivals. But for my money, the film that best illustrates Miike’s uncontainable creativity, and the high point of his career to that point, was Gozu—released exactly 20 years ago today, on July 12, 2003.
I didn’t discover Gozu until years later, in 2010. It was the first Takashi Miike movie I had ever seen, at the ripe old age of 17. An acquaintance of mine, a guitar teacher with an obsession for obscure international horror, loaned it to me without any explanation—not that an explanation would have helped. Miike movies rarely fit cleanly into genres, but Gozu is a special sort of mess: a surreal queer romance horror sex comedy yakuza road movie.
If you’re confused by that description, a plot summary isn’t likely to help all that much either. On the surface level, the film concerns a mentally ill yakuza (a member of the Japanese mafia) named Ozaki. Because of his dangerous instability—he bashes a random woman’s pet chihuahua to death because he’s convinced it’s an assassin from a rival gang—fellow yakuza Minami is tasked by the higher-ups to kill Ozaki and dispose of him in the gang’s junkyard. Minami takes his unsuspecting friend and blood-brother Ozaki on a road trip to the junkyard, but on the way Ozaki suffers an accidental death on the road. After stopping to make a phone call in a coffee shop with Ozaki’s corpse propped up in the backseat Weekend at Bernie’s style, Minami returns to the car to find the body missing. For the rest of the movie, he searches for Ozaki’s corpse in the dilapidated suburbs of Nagoya—and things get increasingly bizarre, horrific, and even supernatural.
A man with half his face chalk-white like the Phantom of the Opera looks up from a Playboy magazine as Minami drives by. Breast milk drips down from the rounded ceiling light and splashes into Minami’s soup. A waiter at the restaurant stands there clear as day and says he died three years ago in a car accident. And trust me—these are some of the tamest moments from the movie. Eventually Minami finds Ozaki, but the catch is, he’s alive now. And that’s not the only catch; he’s a woman now too. Minami and female Ozaki have sex, but Minami feels a strange obstruction in her vagina. And what’s that sound? Naturally, in the scene that follows, the woman gives birth to a full-grown male Ozaki, who comes out of her vagina screaming and lunging at Minami. Hard cut to three toothbrushes in a toothbrush holder, and Minami, (male) Ozaki, and the woman strolling down the street with their arms all linked together; happily ever after. (And before you ask: no, this doesn’t make any more sense if you’ve seen the full movie.)
In 11th grade, I experienced the insanity of Gozu with a deranged glee, my eyes peeled open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. I forced all my friends to watch it, many of them staring into space for minutes after the credits rolled and joking that they’d need therapy to recover. A running joke developed where any time someone suggested we hang out, I’d say something along the lines of, “Sure, we could watch Gozu,” and they would scream, “No!”
There was something about the movie which gave it a certain power that others simply didn’t have. I, and several of my friends, had seen Audition and Ichi the Killer, and while I loved them, they weren’t the same. In that era of 2000s edginess and shock, one couldn’t really say that they were completely unlike other films of the period. These were also the days of The Human Centipede (2009) and A Serbian Film (2010), both of which gained viral popularity as punchlines on the internet (not so different from the “Let’s watch Gozu” running gag), but which in retrospect were far less subversive than they pretended to be. The Human Centipede, for example, was for the most part a conventional horror film. While it had its moments of shock value, it followed a traditional narrative structure and repurposed older horror movies and classic tales like H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). 85% of the time it was a normal movie.
Gozu, on the other hand, was just different. Unlike The Human Centipede, it never operated like a normal movie. Not for one second. The sheer scale of originality is incredible. What other movie in history has shown a brother sucking his own sister’s nipples and squirting the milk into jars to sell at the grocery store? What other movie has even considered showing a woman give birth to a fully grown man? Or have a man with the head of a giant cow sneak into someone’s hotel room at night wearing tighty-whiteys? The Human Centipede had pretensions that it was trying to be a good movie. Gozu did not. It leaned headfirst into the gale-force winds of gibberish with unbridled glee. Tellingly, the final shot of the movie is a hard cut to a closeup of a man laughing maniacally into the camera.
It’s easy to reduce Gozu to a joke by describing some of its absurd moments out of context (not that the context would help)—and indeed, they’re all performed with a sense of humor. But jokes aside, at 17 years old I found the movie’s endless creativity inspirational. How could someone even come up with all this nonsense? Gozu was, sincerely, the movie that made me decide to go to film school. I wanted to make art as original, unexpected, and delightful as this. And once I made the decision to switch from film production to film studies, I joked that my sole reason for doing so was to answer one question: “What the hell was the point of Gozu anyway?” Thirteen years later, I can finally answer that age-old question. What is the point of Gozu? Well, my friend, there isn’t one.
Okay, that’s not exactly true. But the key to understanding Gozu lies in the experience of watching it, and the emotions it creates in the viewer, not the logic of the events themselves. Characters do things without any apparent reason, and events do not follow a logical cause-and-effect sequence. However, this is not an accident.
Mere minutes after meeting Minami, and without knowing anything about him, local gangster Nosechi confidently asks, “Your grandma’s name is Kiriko, right?” When he says it’s not, Nosechi sullenly explains that because they had so much in common (nothing, as far as we can tell), he assumed their grandmothers would have the same name. Elsewhere, characters hop instead of walk. Men wear women’s underwear on their head. Different people repeat the same stock phrases, like “A friend in need is a friend indeed” over and over. Characters in this world simply do not think or act like normal human beings, and we have no idea why.
For most viewers, this is a hard pill to swallow. We, especially in the United States, are used to movies where characters are driven by clear personal motivations and behave rationally, and where events push the narrative forward and deepen the viewers’ understanding of the plot. This is the filmmaking standard codified by Classical Hollywood and still more-or-less followed by the U.S. film industry today. But in Gozu, this is not the case. How and why did Ozaki turn into a woman? No one knows, no one cares, and it doesn’t matter. There isn’t supposed to be an explanation. In this movie, logic simply does not apply.
The fact that events occur for seemingly no reason whatsoever amplifies how unsettling, confusing, and horrifying the movie is. The unknown is more frightening than the known, and Gozu takes this to its logical extreme. In a movie like Dawn of the Dead (1978), the rules of the game are clear: we know how zombies will behave, even if they might jump out where we didn’t expect it. Gozu, however, has no rules. Anything can happen at any time. Giant cow man sneaks into my bedroom? Sure. Man dies, comes back to life as a woman, and gives birth to himself? Why not. People appear and disappear with no explanation? Sounds great. We truly have no idea what will happen next, and this is what makes it uniquely unsettling, frightening, and—oftentimes—funny.
Although the confusion inherent in watching Gozu is central, it is important to note that the movie does include quite a bit of Buddhist mythology. The male and female innkeeper are whacked out versions of Izanagi and Izanami, major creation deities, and their inn seems to be some kind of gateway to the underworld. In Buddhism, Gozu (“ox head”) and Mezu (“horse head”) are the guardian demons of hell, and in the film it is Gozu who gives Minami the letter that leads him to find Ozaki.
Finally, Ozaki’s transformation into a woman can be read as a form of reincarnation. However, the film is not any kind of direct allegory or adaptation of any particular myth. And although an understanding of the cultural heritage might enrich a foreigner’s viewing of the film, it’s not necessary. I would even go so far as to say that not having this understanding as an anchor probably makes the experience even better; launch yourself freely into the tornado and enjoy the confusion.
It’s an unusually quiet movie, and this makes it even more difficult to stomach. There is almost no music for the entire 130 minutes, other than some brief bursts of a Psycho-esque discordant violin at moments of special surprise or shock (such as when we realize Ozaki’s corpse has disappeared, or when Gozu enters the room). Even during dialogue, there are long moments of silence as we wait for characters to reply. When Minami gently tells Ozaki that the car behind them is not a “yakuza attack car,” Minami stares at him silently for fifteen seconds before he answers.
Furthermore, in Nagoya, where most of the movie takes place, the world is drenched in an almost piss-yellow tint – an aesthetic choice that only serves to play up the film’s obsession with flesh and bodily fluids. This is not the beautiful colored tint of Vertigo‘s graveyard or of Blade Runner 2049‘s neon city, but one that makes the world even more repulsive than it already is.
Lastly, shots often use a Dutch angle (common for horror films), and characters are frequently staged far off-center. When Minami first settles into his room at the inn, the camera is placed on the ceiling out in the hallway. For several minutes, Minami is barely visible at the far right of the screen, or even completely off camera while talking with Nosechi.
The discomfort and confusion we feel puts us in the same boat as Minami. Because, as mentioned earlier, things in Gozu happen out of thin air without any clear rhyme or reason, Minami is powerless to stop them; he just stares silently, mouth agape—much like us—at what happens around him. Few protagonists have so lacked the ability to control the events of their own narrative. The plot advances almost exclusively by accident. Told that the local Shiroyama gang can help him find Ozaki, Minami searches all day to no avail. But then he gets a flat tire and his car grinds to a halt in the exact spot he needs to be; he looks slightly left, and he’s eye to eye with Nosechi of the Shiroyama gang. Later, he discovers Ozaki’s location only because Gozu comes to deliver him a letter. Even Ozaki’s death and disappearance are pure accidents. Minami accomplishes none of this.
But it’s not just that he lacks narrative agency in general. Minami simply can’t stand up for himself. Back at home, he’s the yakuza lapdog—he does whatever his superiors order him to. In Nagoya, he can only look away, apologize awkwardly, or at most mildly complain in the face of an absurd series of social nightmares. Everything is constructed to make him—and us—feel bad. When Nosechi repeatedly asks if he can sleep in Minami’s motel room, it seems clear that he’s trying to have sex with him. Minami politely refuses, and the next morning Nosechi shows up in a neck brace. When asked what happened, he says, “I got injured. I had a hunch something bad would happen last night. So I didn’t want to leave. It’s all your fault.” Characters blame Minami for everything. The waiter brings food he didn’t order, and is devastated when he doesn’t want it. At times the movie almost feels like a cringe comedy.
The peculiar thing is that Minami is a yakuza; he makes a living as a strong-armed thug, and carries a pistol with him the entire movie. Yet he never uses it. He never fights. He rarely yells. He doesn’t stand up for himself. He barely even speaks. Minami is powerless, and surrounded by a world of absurd inconveniences and dangers. This is the core dynamic of the movie.
The darker side to this is that Minami is repeatedly violated, harassed, and sexually assaulted. Both men and women are constantly getting handsy with him or trying to coerce him into unwanted sex. When Minami is taking a bath at the inn, the female innkeeper bursts into the room and refuses to leave. She stares at his naked body, compliments his penis, and asks if he wants to drink her breast milk. Minami turns away and hunches over like a shy child. Compare this to Ozaki, who kills a dog for no reason, or Ichi the Killer‘s Ichi, who can only get sexually aroused by committing murder. Minami is one of the least assertive and least violent characters in all of Miike’s work.
The sexual content of the movie, in addition to being disturbing and uncomfortable, is also the key to its one true logical thread: Minami’s apparent homosexuality. In a flashback scene, he reveals that he recently got a circumcision, and Ozaki demands to see the results. When he demurs, Ozaki says, “If you don’t show me, I’ll kill you.” Minami of course gives in and, like the female innkeeper, Ozaki compliments the size, and calls it “enchanting.” The early scenes between the two are also sprinkled with vaguely romantic lines like “You with me til the end?” But in typical fashion, it’s not clear if Minami’s deference to Ozaki is because of his submissive personality—Ozaki is his boss—or if he actually is in love with him. In the first half of the movie, we initially interpret these moments as deeply sad; Minami being sexually abused even by his closest friend.
But in the second half of the movie, everything changes. The real “reason” that Ozaki is transformed into a woman is not because it makes sense, or because anything caused it to happen, but because it is the only way that Minami can express his repressed sexuality. It serves a thematic purpose, and that’s all the justification necessary. If Minami is indeed in love with Ozaki, as is implied, but afraid of acting on his desire with another man, then the only way to consummate that love is if Ozaki turns into a woman. When he does, they have sex. And in the midst of that sex, Ozaki turns back into a man. This is the nightmare of someone very confused about their feelings for a male friend. The solution is exactly what happens: the happy trio of Minami, male Ozaki who he can still be friends with, and female Ozaki who he can have sex with. The best of both worlds. Minami, who has spent the entire movie fighting off strangers trying to have sex with him, finally found someone he can love and willingly have sex with.
The fact that the two halves of the movie are so incompatible doesn’t matter. Yes, the Ozaki of the first half is horribly abusive to Minami. Also yes, the two live happily ever after in a perfect healthy relationship after the movie ends. Director Miike and screenwriter Sakichi Sato clearly didn’t even bother trying to reconcile this disparity. And this is the beauty of Gozu. The normal rules just don’t apply.
Twenty years after the movie was released, and thirteen years after I saw it for the first time, it still remains the most delightfully unhinged movie I have ever seen. It is grotesque, obscene, and gut-wrenching, but at the same time it has a purity of vision, an endless creativity, and a childlike sincerity that remains unmatched. The world is far too inundated with movies that “make sense,” or are designed to be consumed as easily as possible. Because it is so absurd, Gozu masquerades as pointless nonsense. But in reality, it is a shockingly rich and thematically deep film, equal to or greater than any other by Miike. As Ozaki says in the opening scene, “Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke.” But the trick is that he’s deadly serious.