Even though Takashi Miike (46 Okunen No Koi, Zebraman 2, Crows Zero 2, Crows Zero, Sun Scarred) is going through a more kid-friendly phase of his career (Nintama Rantaro, Ace Attorney), he is still fondly remember for the wacky and crazy stuff (Visitor Q) he made 10-15 years ago. Gozu is a genuine relic of that particular time and without a doubt one of the highlights of that period. Even by modern standards some scenes are still jaw-droppingly insane.
Even though Gozu was also dubbed Yakuza Horror Theater, it's not that simple to categorize the film (then again, that goes probably for most of Miike's films) as a straight-up horror flick. Gozu does have its fair share of tense and freaky moments, but underlying the horror is a constant stream of absurd humor. Gozu never cashes in on gore, creeps or scares, instead it uses its dark and outlandish setting to draw some awkward and stunned laughs from its audience.
The challenge of Gozu is to appreciate its two distinct sides. There are some genuinely funny, dry and understated scenes littered throughout the film, but they tend to be overshadowed by the bat-shit crazy moments that Miike flaunts so generously in order to brighten up the film. By comparison the rest of the scenes may appear to be a little dull, but that's just by contrast. If you look a little closer you'll find that the in-between scenes have their one unique flair and contain plenty of laughs too.
The film starts off when low-ranking yazuka Minami is ordered to kill his own boss, Ozaki. Ozaki has lost his mind and he's become a liability to the entire clan, so Minami and Ozaki are sent on a trip to a remote village where Minami is supposed to take care of the killing. While Minaki is reluctant to follow up his orders, he is helped by faith when Ozaki suddenly dies beyond Minami's own control. But then Ozaki's body disappears and the people of the village turn out to be a real freak show, unable to help him locate Ozaki's remains.
Visually it's typical oldskool Miike, although there aren't too many ultra-budget effects on display here. The image quality is quite grainy, but the desolate and detailed settings do provide some surprisingly atmospheric visuals. The warm red and brown colors that run throughout the film help to further establish the dark and intense atmosphere. Not everything is up to par, some scenes do look a little pale in comparison to others, but overall Gozu is a visually pleasing film.
The soundtrack too has its moments. From the eerie jazzy interludes to the Gozu theme song, Miike has a few interesting musical tricks up his sleeve. As a whole the soundtrack may lack some coherence and it it does come across as quite fragmented, but within individual scenes it proves itself to be an asset to the overall atmosphere of the film.
Sone takes up the lead role as Minami, but when all is said and done this is really Sho Aikawa's film. He really owns his Ozaki character, bringing a surprising likability to an otherwise weird and insane character. Aikawa is a great actor, one of Japan's underestimates gems if you ask me, and he truly thrives when featured in a Miike film. The films also features some very good performances of Keiko Tomita and Renji Ishibashi in secondary roles and a nice cameo of Ken'ichi Endo, making for a fun and varied cast that is not afraid to get a little freaky.
As good as the film is in its entirety, Gozu will always be remember for a couple of glorious, stand-alone "wtf" moments. The film opens with the by now infamous yakuza killer dog scene and goes on to surprise and revolt with the human milk farm, the yakuza skin collection, the worst death scene ever and the cow scene. But it all pales in comparison to one of the most epic endings ever filmed, five minutes of pure Miike genius that couldn't have made a better finale. A scene that Miike even knows to surpass with what is probably the oddest, driest ending quote ever.
Even though these scenes tend to pull all the attention towards them, there is still plenty to enjoy in between. Miike's sense of dry and absurd humor is impeccable throughout the film, Minami's trip is as weird, awkward and disturbing as they come and Aikawa puts in one of the best performances of his life. Just don't expect a typical horror/mystery flick (despite many claims of Lynch-like scenes), Gozu is a superb comedy meant for people who like their slice of cinema a little different.