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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Another shock to the system

Gokudo Kyofu Daigekijo Gozu

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takeshi Miike
Running time: 129 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now available on video

"Straight to video" has long been the kiss of death for any Japanese film hoping to get attention from critics and the media. In other words, no theatrical release, no reviews or press coverage, save perhaps from the stray fanzine. For lonely guys prowling their neighborhood Tsutaya, none of this matters -- they'll rent a film as long as they like the snarling actor or the writhing semiclad actress on the box.

News photo
Hideki Sone in "Gokudo Kyofu Daigekijo Gozu"

But distributors hoping to attract a larger audience do care and have been giving their better straight-to-video titles, called "V Cinema" films in Japan, token theatrical releases since the start of the "V Cinema" boom in the early '90s. Reviewers have to move quickly to see these films -- they usually disappear from the theaters in the blink of an eye -- but if we're lucky, we can find gems among the dross, including genre-stretching work by talented directors.

One of those directors is Takashi Miike and many of the films for which he is known abroad, from his international breakout "Shinjuku Kuroshakai China Mafia Senso (Shinjuku Triad Society)" (1995) to the film currently under review, "Gokudo Kyofu Daigekijo Gozu (Gozu)," are V Cinema titles. Few of the foreign-festival programmers and fans who eagerly await his latest outrage care that V Cinema films get little respect from the Japanese film and media establishment. To them a Miike film is a Miike film -- the more extreme, the better. Who needs the "theatrical release" label to appreciate his latest plunge into splatter violence, S&M sex and all-round depravity?

Evidently not the programmer who selected "Gozu" for the Critics Fortnight section at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Evidently not the critics who named this yakuza horror flick as one of the finds of the festival. And evidently not the Pia Film Festival, Japan's oldest and most influential showcase for independent filmmakers, which selected "Gozu" as its opening film.

So why should this humble reviewer mind that Toei Video, Gozu's distributor, is releasing it straight to the video shelves, together with the latest bondage titles? Don't readers of The Japan Times also have Tsutaya cards? Yes, you do -- so onward.

Miike is notorious for shocking the unshockable -- including hardened academics who celebrate "transgressive cinema" but cravenly hide their eyes when the psychotic heroine saws off her middle-aged lover's foot in "Audition" or when the camera takes a cockroach's tour of a gore-strewn floor in "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)."

By those standards "Gozu" is mild indeed, despite its "horror" label. It is, in fact, more in Miike's comic vein, though this doesn't mean you can take your grandmother to it, unless obasan's fantasy life resembles the work of Hieronymous Bosch. A more apt comparison, or at least a local one, is Yoshiharu Tsuge, an underground manga artist whose sensitive loner heroes are forever stumbling into awkward, usually erotic, situations in strange, forgotten corners of Japan.

"Gozu" may ramble for scene after bizarre scene with few real shocks along the way, but Miike draws us, together with his flummoxed hero, ever deeper into his creepy, sex-charged dreamscape, until he springs his climax like a razor-toothed trap. This is not the video for Mr. Lonely to watch before nodding off -- unless he wants to wake up screaming.

The hero is Minami (Hideki Sone), the husky, doggedly faithful subordinate to Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), a wakagashira (second-in-command) in the Azamawari-gumi. But when Ozaki flakes out -- calling someone's pet Chihuahua a "yakuza assassin" and swinging it around his head like a bolo, the gang's Sybaritic boss (Renji Ishibashi) decides he is a threat and orders Minami to take him to a "yakuza disposal site" in Nagoya. Minami may respect his nutty aniki (gang brother), but his higher loyalty is to the boss. He reluctantly accepts the assignment.

As Minami drives Ozaki to his date with destiny, Ozaki flips out yet again -- and ends up dead. When Minami dashes into a roadside restaurant to call the boss for instructions (and be served by a pudgy waiter wearing a see-through blouse and black brassiere), the corpse somehow disappears. Now panicked, Minami goes in search of the body. The cop at a nearby police box, a Hong Kong Chinese, is little help, as is a blond foreigner who reads her lines, in stumbling Japanese, off cue cards taped to the wall (an impatient Minami reads along with her). Finally Minami runs across a chap, sitting in a field, whose face is painted half-white -- and who happens to work at the "yakuza disposal site," a junkyard run by oddball gangsters.

Ozaki is not there, however, and Minami ends up staying at a seedy ryokan managed by an eccentric older couple. The man seems to be brain damaged, while the woman has a raging libido and a problem with . . . lactation. By now, Minami is convinced that all of Nagoya is a madhouse. He doesn't know how mad, however, until he meets a guy with the head of a bull . . .

This may sound like complete nonsense -- "Yakuza Through the Looking Glass" -- but Miike has more on his mind than a blackly comic reel through a crazy-clock universe. By betraying Ozaki, he shows us, Minami has violated something deeper than his phony gangster code. His descent into nightmare, as a dull normal in a world of scary weirdos, is a fitting karmic punishment. He rages at this world -- but in the end it grabs him . . .

Suffice to say, Miike fans will enjoy the latest in a long series of I-can't-believe-I'm-seeing-this finales. The rest of you? Just make sure you have at least one hand free; you'll need it to block that screen.

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