films from japan
“Remember, everything I’m about to tell you is a joke,” says Ozaki, shortly before murdering a puppy. The dog, he earnestly tells his fellow gang members, has been trained to kill yakuza such as themselves. The opening scene of Gozu (Gokudō kyōfu dai-gekijō: Gozu, 2003) is unsettling, comedic, and absurd all at once, a microcosm of the world we are on the verge of entering. What gives birth to our unease, or our stifled laughs, or our restrained horror? It’s not just the bloody image of the killing itself (i.e. mere repulsion). Rather, it’s what gives rise to the killing, and what inheres in its image: the unidentifiable, unquestioning logic of Ozaki (who is played with hilariously intense conviction by Aikawa Shō). Is there anything more disorienting than the self-assured articulation of an absurd logic? Especially when I cannot be sure that the filmic world judges nonsense by the same criteria that I do — perhaps in the space captured on camera, Ozaki’s vision is truth, and my inability to grasp a framework that explains and contains his murderous aggression makes me the mad one. It’s here, in this vulnerable space, that the giggling and the chills — in other words, the affect — of Ozaki’s joke can be explored.
What kind of joke is Gozu?
It’s a gritty and rambling joke, lingering on tangents with the grainy footage of an often still camera. Pace is dictated by the actors and the sound effects, while we watch quietly and uncertainly from a distance.
It’s a dirty joke, something about sex and masculinity – women’s bodies are signified as grotesque and desirable in the same moment, and a gangster bromance is what drives the plot. This “brotherly love” is a relatively safe idea in most heteronormative societies: passionate, non-sexual affection between men. But what if that “buddy” affection found itself directed towards a female body? Suddenly, the same glances and smiles that meant “comrade” now scream “sex”, simply because in our prescribed imagistic vocabulary, “men and women” means lust and love. By putting a woman’s body where it’s not “supposed” to be, Gozu reveals the eroticism that underlies male-male friendships – whether that truth makes us laugh or squirm is of no consequence. The joke is laughing at us, not with us; it’s the hysterical laugh of the mad old man in the café who stares straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. Whether we laugh along or not depends on our adaptability to a new language; which is to say, the joke’s logic.
The joke is also playing with myth: Gozu, or Ox-Head, is a mythological guardian of Buddhist hell, usually portrayed along with companion Horse-Face as a guide into the Underworld. He occupies a transitional space between two worlds – the living and the dead, or to put it another way, observable mundanity and the fantasy world of stories and magic.
Gozu: we hear the name gurgled from a womb; we see the minotaur offering an envelope that contains words from beyond the grave, words directing Minami, our reluctant protagonist, further into a labyrinth of eerie nonsense and incomprehensible games.
Gozu’s narrative is structured as a hero’s quest: we follow Minami on a journey from a known, logical home world to a new world with a new, unknown logic, where he must overcome monsters, rescue a woman, and then return home and restore order. The journey is fragmented and episodic, with some events folding back on others – it’s nothing less than a modern-day Odyssey. When Minami returns to Ithaca/Tokyo, all is not well, and a suitor must be dispatched of before the final, sexual conflict, in which Penelope proves to have a trick or two up her – sleeve.
In the film, the journey between worlds is visually articulated by a change of colour filter (the Underworld is presented almost entirely in shades of yellow), and verbally articulated as a journey between Tokyo and Nagoya – in Tokyo, the world makes sense, and only Ozaki is mad. In Nagoya, the world is mad, and only Minami makes sense. In real life, we see Tokyo as modernity, civilization, and an organising centre-point; whereas Nagoya, while being a big city and having a lot of cultural history, isn’t one of the big cities – it’s not as cosmopolitan as Tokyo, not as tied to traditional culture as Kyoto, and not as vibrant as Osaka. It’s a second-place sort of city, which is perhaps why Gozu has such fun making it into a world that is only vaguely familiar, the Wonderland for our Alice. Minami himself is mostly a two-dimensional vessel for the viewer to move between worlds, but he does prove himself adaptable to Nagoyan ways, as we see when he speaks on the phone to his uncomprehending yakuza boss back in Tokyo and is unable to explain his situation without sounding mad himself.
We are also travelling with Minami between the genre worlds of the yakuza film and the horror film (the original title is Yakuza Horror Theatre: Gozu) – by disregarding our expectations of genre, the film makes us laugh with surprise, or makes our skin crawl with the inability to make predictions, to organise events into something recognisable, something comfortable. The “journey story” is something we can cling onto in this respect, though its tropes are subverted, poked at, played with enough to keep the spirit of the joke alive.
This subversion is at the heart of things – despite all my talk about mythology, the tone here is more Rabelaisian than Homeric: the minotaur is scary as a concrete presence rather than a symbolic one, the hybrid of a man’s body in Y-fronts and a slobbering cow’s head is powerful because it can physically touch you. People are defined by corporeality – a man who paints his face white, a foreigner who speaks by reading lines from a romaji script plastered around her shop, a landlady whose ceaseless lactation seems to have great significance in the unknown order of things in Nagoya. Meaning, depth, profundity is produced by these affective bodies – the sound and the camera evoke this realisation in us, while denying any clue as to what the meaning may actually be. Merit of the visceral: to see an adult hand emerging from a vulva is a powerful image that inspires a strong reaction in most viewers, whether it be hilarity, disgust, fascination, etc. – the question is how that affect is transmuted into something beyond the limits of viewer and image. What’s important isn’t the meaning, but the interconnectedness of the visceral images, and their resulting ability to both signify and withhold a new logic that we can feel but not understand, that speaks to us without being intelligible – again, the pre-life word/sound being gurgled at us from inside the womb of a mad person, “gozu, gozugozugozu…”.
Finally, the context of a mistake: in the West, Gozu‘s director Miike Takeshi has a limiting reputation as the specifically Japanese mind that births shocking and grotesque images that make little if any sense. This reputation is built out of the auteur brand that is sold alongside “Asia Extreme”, the exoticising distribution tactic that sells weirdness cemented to cultural difference as “cult films” – of all his many films, only those that can be marketed under the “weird Japan” image have been widely distributed and have a fan base in the West. Gozu is one such film, which is why I was able to watch it on a British TV channel. Partially because of this popular narrative about Miike and Japan, it’s easy to explain away our discomfort with the film’s violent images: a puppy being swung on it’s leash like a lasso, a ladle penetrating an anus, a lactating breast… it’s just crazy Miike, it’s just weird Japan. But if the film’s power comes merely from our visceral disgust or laughter at these unusual sights, then its freak-show aesthetic is little more than a type of pornography. It takes little skill to create an image that upsets general sensibilities, after all, just as it’s much easier to dismiss madness than to go along with its vision. Japan-as-pornographer is a misconception born out of years of Orientalism and a more modern marketing promise, and to consume Gozu in this way is to skip lightly over its dark and pulsing heart.
As for the punchline, I personally found it satisfying, though not equal to the path through the labyrinth that took me there…