Dir: Takashi Miike. Japan. 2003. 129mins

Audiences never know quite what to expect from the indefatigably prolific Japanese oddball Takashi Miike: sometimes a couple of wildly inspired sequences will leaven a routine film, sometimes he relentlessly beats you into submission. With the barely-describable Gozu, however, Miike's crazed imagination delivers the goods pretty much from start to finish. This surreal, gag-filled shaggy-dog story will certainly please his busy video market, both in Japan and abroad, but stands a better chance than many of his films of finding an international theatrical audience. On the festival circuit - it premiered in Directors' Fortnight at Cannes - it will be a must for programmers looking for cult pleasures in the classic midnight-movie style.

From the start, it looks like business as usual, with a gang of burly mobsters convening in a bar. But once loose-cannon Ozaki (Aikawa) spots a 'trained anti-yakuza attack dog' - in fact, a weedy chihuahua - events hit a decidedly Monty Python-ish key. Hapless hero Minami (Sone) is a young hood faithful to the elder Ozaki, whom he calls 'Aniki' (Brother). But Ozaki wants to wrest power from the clan boss, a middle-aged lecher who can only enjoy sex with a spoon shoved up his bum.

An unexpected incident on the road leaves Ozaki apparently dead, and while Minami takes a break in a diner populated by idiots and lunatics, Ozaki vanishes. Setting out to find him, Manami is helped by a man with a bizarre skin condition, whose face is half painted white, and takes refuge in an inn where the elderly patronne is anxious to feed him her copious breast milk. The weirdness keeps piling up - Minami has an encounter with a slavering Minotaur, and visits a car wrecking yard devoted to offing gangsters, where yakuzas' tattooed and pressed skins are hung up like suits in a dry cleaner.

Eventually, Ozaki is apparently reincarnated in the form of Sukiko (Yoshino), an alluring young woman; needless to say, Minami's boss can't wait to try his spoon technique out on her. The whole Yakuza In Wonderland trip ends with a jaw-dropping climax involving a pair of Givenchy split-crotch panties and some hallucinatory yucky prosthetics.

Miike's cool control and leisurely pacing give the proceedings a genuinely absorbing dream quality, faintly reminiscent of David Lynch and Raoul Ruiz. It sometimes feels as though Miike is prepared to go in any direction to keep us mystified, and there is perhaps a touch too much circularity. But many of the jokes are sublimely outrageous, either for their gross-out quality or just for downright cheek: the best, and simplest, is a Hellzapoppin-esque sight gag about Americans' shaky Japanese pronunciation.

The surrealism is unequivocally misogynistic and there's no denying the Freudianism is laid on with a trowel. Unusually for Miike, however, the blood count is low, though he compensates with just about every other bodily fluid imaginable. What chihuahua lovers and the people at Givenchy make of it is another question, but Gozu - and you'll have to see it for the title's bizarre explanation - is funhouse insanity with rare panache.

Prod co/int'l sales: Klockworx
Harumi Sone, Kana Koido
Sakichi Sato
Kazunari Tanaka
Yasushi Shimamura
Prod des:
Akira Ishige
Koji Endo
Main cast:
Hideki Sone, Sho Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino