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Of all the things Takashi Miike has been accused of, creative maturity is pretty low on the list. Churning out five or six films a year, the Japanese “shock auteur” skips gleefully from direct-to-video gangster film to ultraviolent gorefest to musical comedy, sometimes combining elements from all of these and more. But with Miike’s latest American release, Gozu, there is—besides the usual flashes of brutality and wildly surreal imagery, of course—both a surprising lack of bombast and a level of sophistication not glimpsed since the director’s 2002 Graveyard of Honor. The opening scene introduces us to yakuza lieutenant Ozaki (perennial Miike player Shô Aikawa), who has apparently gone off the deep end: He’s convinced that a harmless-looking Chihuahua is a “yakuza attack dog,” and classic Miike wackiness ensues as he flattens the helpless pooch with his comrades looking on in mute shock. The gang’s boss then orders Ozaki’s right-hand man, Minami (Hideki Sone), to get rid of him, but this task weighs heavily on Minami, who owes his life to his “big brother.” On the way to the dump where the hit is to take place, Minami loses Ozaki’s unconscious body, beginning a labyrinthine quest through Miike’s most hallucinatory world to date. A restaurant full of cross-dressing waitresses, a guide with half his face inexplicably painted white, and an abundantly lactating hotel proprietor all serve, in one way or another, to eventually unite Minami and Ozaki—though the reunion doesn’t go quite as planned, to say the least. The press materials for Gozu proclaim it to be a “Yakuza horror film,” but the horrors here are generally more subtle than that tag would lead you to believe. There’s the shopkeeper outraged at the idea of a white woman selling sake in a neighboring business, for starters, as well as Minami’s realization that he might have indeed accidentally killed the man he’d been ordered to. In fact, with the exception of a few gross-out set pieces—one of which Lars von Trier obsessives will note as having been borrowed from The Kingdom—Gozu is even more of a slow, meditative burn than Miike’s 2000 art-house hit, Audition. Is this Miike’s version of Lost Highway? Maybe. Is it a tale of repressed homosexual love between gangsters? Probably. Whatever the case, though, and however difficult to parse Gozu can be, Miike makes one thing clear: He can still shock us, with artistic growth if nothing else.—Jason Powell