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Gozu is a very “Dead Dove Do Not Eat” kind of film. It’s Takashi Miike. I don’t know what I expected. If nothing else, I was surprised to find out afterwards that it was released in 2003. Everything from its look to its attitude feels very 90s. I had an alright time with it. But there are some capital-P Problems here.
The first is a tonal issue which arises from Miike getting too playful with the familiar elements of his filmography. The opening title promisingly bills Gozu as a “Yakuza Horror Theater” but the film’s beats are much closer to what you’d see in one of Miike’s broader comedies. It’s overloaded with an often juvenile silliness. This comes particularly at the expense of gender non-conforming people, which you always hate to see. It’s not as bad as it could be in that department, I suppose. It’s just disappointing to see trans people treated as wacky outre gags on the level of poop jokes.
But again, what do you expect from Miike? He’s never been a filmmaker with an overabundance of sensitivity. He works with all the subtlety of a cannon blast, and you just have to take him or leave him. Most of the time, I’ll take him. I loved his JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure adaptation last year. The problem with Gozu isn’t really a Miike problem, though. It comes from how Miike tries to experiment with his own style.
As I said, this is basically a broad comedy, but it doesn’t play like one. Miike shoots it like a tense horror-thriller, replete with ominous music cues and anxiety-inducing angles. Miike keeps undercutting the tension with jokes, but he maintains the creepy tone through the punchlines, so they never really land. Gozu is a hard film to laugh at because you’re never really sure if it wants you to laugh at it. It’s also impossible to be scared by because the ostensibly frightening aspects always feel like self-parody. I just don’t know what this movie wants to be.
Still, it’s a Miike movie, and that means some astonishing compositions. Miike can toss off a brilliant image like it’s nothing, cutting away from it before you even have time to process it. Everything else aside, he’s just fundamentally a good director. Without his visual acuity, Gozu would be basically unwatchable. It’s thanks to his innate skill that it ends up more or less entertaining, if ultimately disposable. It’s definitely the weakest Miike film I’ve watched, but the bar is set pretty high there.