Splice a Japanese yakuza thriller with David Lynch's "Eraserhead," and you might come up with the spiked bowl of ramen that is "Gozu," the latest and most creatively unhinged film from director Takashi Miike. Long before the scene in which a briefs-wearing demon with a cow's head gives a tongue bath to the leading man, the movie plunges off the cliffs of rationality and -- imagine the pause during which the rope uncoils and tightens -- yanks the audience over with it.
Earlier Miike films such as "Audition" and "Ichi the Killer," both cult objects of worship among lovers of psychotronic midnight movies, are notable for a sadism as playful as it is nerve-racking. "Gozu," an altogether more surreal offering, spares the audience (mostly) and saves its gamesmanship for its main character, a virginal young Tokyo mobster named Minami (Hideki Sone).
Far down the yakuza chain of command, Minami is ordered by the big Boss (Renji Ishibashi) to eliminate a second-level gangster, Ozaki (Sho Aikawa), after driving him to a junkyard on the outskirts of Nagoya (which here functions as the Japanese equivalent of northern New Jersey). It seems Ozaki has been acting a little crazy, imagining that lap dogs are trained assassins and reacting with the appropriate zeal (lovers of papillons should probably steer clear of this movie).
Two problems: First, Ozaki is Minami's mentor and all-around big brother. Second, Minami accidentally kills him on the drive to Nagoya and then loses the body after leaving his convertible in a diner parking lot. Much of "Gozu" follows the hero's subsequent encounters with baffling locals like an aging innkeeper (Keiko Tomita) with severe lactation issues and a gangster (Shohei Hino) who insists the white paint on his face is a pigmentation problem. There's more than a little Kafka here, and you might catch a whiff of Lewis Carroll's hookah smoke too.
Eventually, Minami begins to wonder if Ozaki is still alive, and his suspicions are confirmed with the appearance of a seductive young woman (Kimika Yoshino) who claims to be the older gangster. This is where "Gozu" completely breaks down into insanity, as if Miike had decided to pull the supporting struts out of his own narrative. Scenes between the young woman and Minami grow more and more steamy before taking a sharp left turn into the kind of horror that toes the line between the erotic and the icky.
I won't spoil the climactic scene, other than to note that it involves a physical impossibility, liberal amounts of goo, and a hard-line view of reincarnation designed to send sensitive souls bolting for the exits and others laughing in happily grossed-out disbelief. After that entree, the vengeance-minded final scenes and the mock-Godardian freeze-frame that ends the film are merely dessert and espresso.
"Gozu" is very slow and willfully obscure -- not your average midnight movie but something more hermetic. It's dreamlike in the manner of an actual dream rather than the usual cue-the-dwarf movie approximations. Unlike other directors, Miike is willing to follow his weirdness to splendid lengths. He's an artful bamboozler, and he never loses his sense of humor.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.