Takashi Miike is Japan's answer to both David Lynch and John Waters. And he's better than both of them, and more prolific with more than 60 films to his credit by the age of 44. He's also stranger than both, sicker than both, crazier than both and definitely not for the farm couple from Frederick in for a weekend in the big city.
It's too bad, then, that his new film, "Gozu," is not in line with his best work, although his fans will be delighted to learn it remains strange, sick and crazy. His international reputation rests primarily on three films, two blood-sprayed yakuza masterpieces ("Dead or Alive" and the truly insane "Ichi the Killer") and "Audition," a seemingly Hitchcockian romantic thriller that utterly betrays its audience's goodwill with an unexpected atrocity so fierce it has to be seen to be believed.
The two great yakuza films were giant evocations of culture, with gangs and cops caught in a terrifying whirlwind of nihilism, peopled by extravagant mutants both powerful and surrealistic. Ichi, for example, was a giant village simpleton who killed people by spin-kicking them with a razor in his shoe; in one scene, he splits a gang leader down the middle.
But "Gozu," although equally bent, is much smaller in scale. Also set in yakuza -- that is, gangster -- culture, it begins with what appears to be a quite straightforward meet between the big boss and his lieutenants in a sleazy Tokyo restaurant, and all the yakuza signifiers are in plain view: much smoking, tattoos visible over the collars (suggesting the tapestry that sheathes the back), gruffness, toughness and bad American hipster clothes circa 1962. (Why the Japanese underworld should be frozen forever in 1962 is a mystery yet to be solved.)
But it soon develops that a key man, Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), is a little "off": He announces to the boss that the little Chihuahua in a woman's arms outside the restaurant is really a fearsome yakuza attack dog. But Ozaki will save everybody's life. He races outside, grabs the squirrelly little mutt from its horrified owner and proceeds to beat, kick and smash it to death. He finally, in a gesture of utter triumph, throws it against the plate glass window, where it leaves a little smear of blood.
And you think: Toto-san, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas any more.
Ozaki's craziness demands that he be taken care of, i.e., quietly disposed of. That task is given to his driver, young Minami (Hideki Sone), a reluctant tyro whose incomplete journey into yakuza manhood is established by the uninked 'too on his back, all swirly line but no color. If he gets rid of Ozaki, he may be allowed to color in the giant design inscribed in his skin.
So Minami drives the somewhat incoherent Ozaki into the country to bump him off, then deposit him at a dumping ground. It all seems to be going well, until, though supposedly dead, Ozaki wanders away.
Thus, the movie: pitiful Minami out in the sticks, trying desperately to catch up with the dazed, insane, possibly even dead Ozaki, who always seems one step ahead of him, as the two maneuver through a zone of non sequitur, surrealism and debauchery. That is, until Ozaki turns into a beautiful young woman (Kimika Yoshino). Yet Ozaki's sudden disappearance and reemergence as a beauty is by no means the strangest development in the story.
Where to start, where to start? Hmm, one place might be the fetishization of the lactation process, in scenes where women deposit breast milk in bottles. Or, for unknown reasons, other large, breastlike objects -- bulbous lighting fixtures on the ceiling are prominent -- continually leak a milklike substance onto everything.
There's the strange inn where the aged female innkeeper seeks sexual contact with a baffled Minami and in whose rooms he receives a visit from what may be the Minotaur who gives him hints as to where Ozaki has fled.
And then there's the most grotesque movie death in history. Young Minami is assaulted by a senior yakuza whom he has discovered in flagrante delicto with the girl who used to be Ozaki. A fight breaks out and Minami must take him out. But, as the wicked witch once pondered as she stroked her long chin, how to do it? He comes up with a little trick involving a . . . no, I can't even go there. But think . . . soup ladles, electricity and orifices.
And then there is the reemergence of Ozaki at movie's end. It turns out he has been in hiding. But what has he been hiding in?
I don't think this is quite the film with which to begin a Miike investigation. That pilgrimage, a worthwhile endeavor for the strong of stomach and the curious of temperament, should start with "Audition," a sharper point of entry. Meanwhile, Miike's fans, those used to his strange ways, will certainly find "Gozu" an amusing addition to the oeuvre. All others will be bewildered beyond expression. And by the way, "Gozu" means "cow head." There's one of those, too.
Gozu (119 minutes, at the E-Street Cinema) is not rated and would certainly qualify for an NC-17 rating.