Minami, a mostly “virginal” member of a yakuza gang, is ordered by the head of that gang to kill his senior yakuza brother (“Ozaki”) because of his apparent insanity. Minami is told to drive Ozaki to an out-of-the-way village (Nagoya) that also serves as a yakuza graveyard (a junkyard where spent yakuza are literally skinned, pressed, and trash-compacted).
While driving, Minami is forced to slam on the brakes as the highway apparently runs out right before his eyes (lost even?). This sudden stop apparently snaps the neck of Ozaki; Minami, confused and shocked by the fact that the murder he was dreading is now already done and over with, continues to Nagoya so he can call in for further instructions from the boss. While Minami’s using the phone, Ozaki’s body disappears from the car.
This disappearance submerges Minami in a long stretch of strange limbo (the bulk of the movie) while he searches for any signs of Ozaki’s missing person. Along the way he encounters a suspect overabundance of milk (“It’s complimentary,” the townsfolk keep saying), a cow-headed ferryman of the dead, and a mysterious woman who claims to be none other than the missing Ozaki him/herself.
[The Lost Highway Connection]
Gozu ostensibly starts off as a fairly stock (if weird) yakuza film: a yakuza-initiate’s loyalty is tested when he is instructed to kill his senior yakuza brother (Ozaki) because the gang’s leader fears Ozaki’s recent displays of insane behavior will jeopardize the gang. Anyone familiar with the genre—especially the rapid-fire and vertiginous (a)morality of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor & Humanity series—might expect the film’s dramatic tension to follow a recognizable path: Will Minami murder Ozaki to ensure his own advancement in the gang? Or will he defy his yakuza boss and throw in his lot with his mentor and friend? And how will the yakuza gang retaliate against these two rogue brothers? Etc.
Instead, though, Gozu quickly reveals its most enduring filmic comparison (indeed its psychic sibling) to be David Lynch’s Lost Highway. The film plays as a Japanese mash-up of Lost Highway’s most important (and dreamlike) details. (This comparison comes up often in reviews of the film, but only superficially, only as a sort of name-check: I’ve lost count of the reviews I’ve read that repeatedly refer to it as Lynchian, while also never unpacking what that might mean, specifically, in this film.)
For me, the most obvious example of this is the way in which Gozu appropriates (and reworks) Lost Highway’s central mystery. In LH, a character played by Bill Pullman literally, corporeally, transforms into a different character (played by Balthazar Getty). In Gozu, this plot point is tweaked by a persistently Miikean (and yakuza-film) subtext: the repressed homoerotic love between male gang members.
That is, in Gozu, when missing Ozaki returns it is in another body, another gender, as a woman. In this altered form, Ozaki/Female Ozaki serves the same function as the transformed Pullman/Getty: To allow the film’s protagonist to fix the fatal flaw that exists as a gulf between him and the person for whom he can’t properly express love. A kind of metaphysical do-over.
I.e., in LH, impotent, sidetracked Pullman is remade into a younger, more-virile self in the hopes of healing his detached, dysfunctional marriage to Patricia Arquette. The fatal flaw in Minami’s relationship in Gozu? He can’t bring himself to admit that he is sexually attracted to Ozaki, another man. So in Gozu Ozaki (played fantastically by Sho Aikawi) is remade into a lover that Minami can accept without cultural or personal shame: a sensual female.
Other ways in which Gozu recasts Lost Highway:
—Robert Blake’s Mystery Man character is reincarnated, through visual and audio cues, as a character called Mr. Nose. The white, pancake makeup of Blake’s has been concentrated in a half-moon that bleaches Mr. Nose’s face (he claims it’s a skin condition, though it flakes like paint). In his first appearance onscreen, Nose thumbs through pornography (Arquette’s pornographic past figures strongly in LH, especially as one of the unacknowledged problems in her relationship with Pullman). Further, in a pivotal later scene (the one in the RV), it seems indisputable that Nose’s thrumming, menacing voice recalls (to the point of mimicry) the Mystery Man’s.
—Ozaki’s accidental death in Minami’s car, which sets in motion the rest of the movie’s plot, is caused by a literal lost highway: the road Minami is following abruptly, jarringly, disappears into a lake.
—The lone American actor in the film is a dead ringer for the platinum-blond Arquette from LH. From her noirish, femme-fatale hair to her almost exactly matched facial features, it’s nearly impossible not to think about LH during her time onscreen. In fact, her status as a “character from another movie” is confirmed by the way her weird encounter with Minami plays; about halfway through questioning her, he realizes that she’s been reading her Japanese answers phonetically and from cue cards taped to the walls. I.e., whatever “fourth wall” exists in this scene is broken (and broken by “quoting” from Lynch).
As far as the end of the film (an admittedly sunnier one than Lynch’s), Minami does consummate his love for brother Ozaki’s female form, and in true ero guro fashion. It is an ending at once titillating, nauseating, and nonsensically—ridiculously—full of glee. As Ozaki warns the other yakuza at the beginning of the film:
“Everything I’m about to tell you is a joke. Don’t take it seriously.”