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Prodigious Output Hits a Snag

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Takashi Miike’s latest film cannibalizes earlier innovations

Ever since the 2001 American release of “Audition,” Japanese director Takashi Miike has rapidly found a cult following in the U.S. Oddly enough, that’s the only Miike film to receive much of a theatrical release. His audience seems to follow him mostly on video: one local store carries 20 Miike DVDs, half of them bootlegs or imports. The Sundance Channel frequently plays his films.

Unfortunately, “Gozu” is unlikely to attract any new converts.

Rather than breaking fresh ground, it’s a lazy, tedious retread of ideas and images from Miike’s earlier films. Minami (Hideki Sone) is an underling to Yakuza Ozaki (Sho Aikawa). Ozaki seems to be going crazy. Convinced that a tiny Chihuahua, which he sees outside a restaurant, is an attack dog trained to kill gangsters, he kills it. The gang boss decides that Ozaki has become a security risk and Minami is ordered to kill him. Reluctant to do so, he manages to get the job done accidentally, when Ozaki breaks his neck in a car accident.

Afterward, Minami goes to a coffee shop to look for a phone. When he comes back, he discovers that Ozaki’s body is missing.

Miike has made 60 films since his 1991 debut, 10 of which I’ve seen. Therefore, it’s hard to sum up a typical Miike work or even clam that I have much of a handle on his oeuvre. He has a predilection for extreme violence, yet he’s also directed family films. He’s made both the slapdash “Visitor Q” (a John Waters/Pier Paolo Pasolini take-off shot on video in one week) and the exquisitely photographed and lit “Ley Lines.” Some of his films seem like excuses to exercise all the weirdness his prodigious imagination can conjure.

“Audition” gradually morphs from a gentle story about a middle-aged widower looking for love into horrific torture. At every step of the way, Miike seems to know exactly what he’s doing. On the other hand, “Dead Or Alive 2” starts off like a throwaway exercise in bizarritude but somehow winds up a poignant buddy drama.

Miike’s biggest problem is that his films often feel like a collection of fragments. He can come up with brilliant set pieces but has trouble filling in the blanks between them. In “The Happiness Of The Katakuris,” the high points—especially the claymation and musical numbers—are enthralling enough that the gaps don’t matter much.

Apart from “Audition,” he also seems to have problems controlling his films’ tone. “Ichi The Killer,” perhaps his most disturbing film, veers from moments of outrageous silliness to deadly serious violence. It’s anyone’s guess when he wants us to stop laughing. On the other hand, he’s also capable of extremely somber films, like the grim gangster saga “Graveyard of Honor.”

A film featuring a woman who enjoys lactating and whipping her brother, as well as a yakuza who can only get an erection with a soup ladle stuck up his ass, shouldn’t be as boring as “Gozu.” Alas, Miike’s begun cannibalizing his own work. The hotel setting, where the middle hour takes place, recalls “The Happiness of the Katakuris.” The breast milk fixation was depicted already in “Visitor Q.” For a change, Miike rips off someone else and borrows his ending from Lars von Trier’s “The Kingdom.”

Unfortunately, “Gozu” is never weird enough to be funny or interesting for its own sake. A few bizarre incongruities, like a Russian woman reading phonetic Japanese off the ceiling and a man with half his face painted white, break open the narrative. However, these are mere episodes of comic relief amidst a sea of ennui.

The opening and closing reels of “Gozu” are pretty solid, but its 129 minutes are a rough ride. Although there’s some violence, it’s hardly a conventional gangster film. Nor is it simply an exercise aimed at exploring the bizarre. As the film progresses, it looks increasingly like a love story between Minami and Ozaki. At its most ambitious, it plays around with identity in a manner akin to David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” and “Mulholland Drive,” but this comes as too little, too late. One wonders why Pathfinder was attracted to this film when better work, like “Graveyard of Honor,” goes undistributed.

Still, there’s always something to look forward to when you’re a Miike fan. Since “Gozu” premiered at Cannes last year, he’s already made five films, two of them for television. None have yet played in New York. Hopefully, for all the flaws in “Gozu,” there’s a Miike gem on the way.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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