The Top Ten Project #4: Gozu

After an epic break that can be attributed to film festivals, flu and general piss-farting around in an attempt to build suspense I am finally getting back to this top ten project. The goal was to count down my personal favourite films from the last decade (2000 – 2009). We are down to the final 4 and this is the point where things are gonna start getting interesting. Here we go, Number 4: Gozu.
4: GOZU (Dir: Takashi Miike, 2003)
Many of you may be familiar with some of the films from prolific Japanese cult director Miike Takashi. For a few years around the turn of the millennium he was banging out multiple films a year in varied genres and they were almost all pretty amazing works. Ichi The Killer, Visitor Q, Dead or Alive, The Happiness of the Katukiris. The list of classic films to his name is enviable.
His major international breakout film was Audition in 1999. While it technically didn't hit the festival circuit till 2000 I am not going to include it in my top ten despite it being an absolute masterpiece and one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had in a cinema. When viewed at a MIFF screening in 2000 I can comfortably say at least one third of the audience walked out during the infamous extended torture scene that occurs in the final act.
This scene goes on for over 8 minutes and was a mindblowingly polarizing experience. As members of the audience were offended they began to leave in increasingly vocal ways, yelling at the screen and other audience members. Any one who has seen Audition will know how this sequence plays out and I can only say that never have I witnessed such a hilariously audacious use of the “it's all a dream” gamut. This is not in any way a spoiler by the way and if you haven't seen Audition then I urge you to run out and rent it immediately. It's a brilliant slow burn of a thriller that virtually birthed the horrible torture porn sub genre that we have been subjected to for the past decade.
But this article is not about Audition. It is about another Miike film, from 2003, entitled Gozu. After my Audition experience I had become familiar with Miike films so I felt comfortable knowing what this director was capable of. Gozu still smashed me in the face the first time I saw it. Rather than describe the opening scene I will let you watch it for yourself.
All I will say is when I initially saw this at MIFF, I was sitting next to a couple of unsuspecting old ladies. I immediately knew they had no idea what type of film they had signed up for. The first 4 minutes of Gozu tripped something in my brain and I began to laugh hysterically. The old couple were not amused and proceeded to walk out after just 4 minutes. Definitely the quickest walk out I have ever seen. In hindsight it was probably a good decision too. If you find the below scene amusing on any level then Gozu is the film for you. If you find it offensive, sick, stupid or pointless then you will not enjoy the following 2 hours.
Hehehe, I still giggle when I watch that scene. Tonally Gozu is Miike doing David Lynch and while such a reductive description usually does a film no favours there really is no better way to describe it. Of course it also is nothing like anything I have ever seen before. I'm not even going to begin to describe the plot of Gozu as it would do a disservice to the odd atmosphere than Miike develops over the course of the film.
Gozu is a slow film. A very slow film. Miike is in no rush and many viewers have trouble syncing in with such a measured pace but the ultimate pay off is so worthwhile that I can only urge those who struggle with the first half to stick with it.
Miike originally made this film as one of the many straight to DVD quickies that he bangs off every year. He made 4 other films the year he made Gozu (although I have read he probably made double that amount as IMDB sometimes is lacking in listing the quickie little Japanese releases that Miike has been known to make). Somehow Gozu appeared at Cannes in the directors fortnight. From there this straight to DVD quickie shot around the world and punched audiences in the face in multiple countries.
Miike's control of the medium in Gozu is impeccable. The sound design alone in this film is magnificent and contributes to a profound sense of unease that builds over the course of the film. You may have noticed that I have essentially used a lot of words to say very little about the actual film. While I'd love to say it is because I want to let you experience the film for yourself without my commentary giving you unnecessary expectations, that is only half the reason.
I've actually hit a wall in trying to communicate my feelings about Gozu. It is such a defiantly original and indescribable experience that I am left reasonably speechless when discussing it. I haven't even begun to mention the final 10 minutes of the film which is without a doubt my single favorite film ending of all time. Yep, that's some mighty hyperbole but holy crap this film messed me up when I first saw it.
There is a rich vein of symbolism and meaning buried in Gozu but first and foremost it is a visceral experience. It's Miike at his most playful and unfettered. It is a horror film, a yakuza film and an absurdist comedy all wrapped up with some lowbrow comedy and a rich surrealist atmosphere. The full English title is: Grand Theatre of Perversion and Fear: Cow's Head.
In Miike's own words:
"If you were a child and rode on a bike to a place you've never been, you'd feel like it's real but not really real. Gozu is like that. You go to a place you've never been but you don't have to make any sense as to why or how you are there."
This is the only film in my top ten that isn't easily available for western audiences. If you hunt a little you should be able to find a DVD. It got several runs especially on American cult labels so there are copies floating around. Gozu is a masterpiece, a singularly acquired taste, one of the weirdest films ever made and simply one of the most memorable things I have ever seen.
The last words on this film can only come from Miike himself. Here is a song Miike himself wrote entitled The Ballad of Gozu. After the clip be sure to read Miike's explanation of the meaning behind the song. It all makes perfect sense doesn't it?
"Gozu grows up to be a man, the village in the song, 'I'm sorry I was born as a man, a cow man.' The song goes, 'I'm sorry I was born, but I cannot give you a meal, because I'm a man.' It was a song about being a man, because he cannot give the meal to anyone else. It's a really sad song because even though he was born as a cow, he cannot produce the milk, that you cannot please everyone. And this is in the film, Gozu is a symbol of the film. But Gozu doesn't really tell you what the Gozu is. So it's a song about 'I'm sorry I didn't give you any food,' which is what the movie's about."