2019, NR, 108 min. Directed by Takashi Miike. Starring Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Shōta Sometani, Becky.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Oct. 4, 2019
A first love can mean different things to many people. It could be a boy who went to school with you when you were young, who played Prince Charming to rescue you from your cruel life at home. Or it could be a sport you’ve been training for your entire life, only to feel burned out just when you start getting pegged for major success. In the case of prolific auteur Takashi Miike’s blood-splattered First Love, it’s both of those things, and much more.
First Love opens hard with Leo (Kubota), a boxer who is down and out about his craft and falls into a deeper stupor when a doctor tells him a deadly tumor has lodged itself in his brain. On the other side, there’s Monica (Konishi), a sex worker who has been forced into the trade to pay off her father’s debts. She gets high to block visions of her father’s ghost that haunts her in bedsheet and underwear. The script by Masa Nakamura (a frequent collaborator of Miike’s) brings these two lost souls together in a convoluted but hilarious police sting gone wrong that pits a yakuza clan and a group of Chinese gangsters together.
The true heart of First Love is the meet-cute that brings Leo and Monica together. Two souls deeply lost, their connection is never romantic, which is a blessing in disguise. For Leo, it can’t be romantic: With death looming on his doorstep, he’s carelessly protecting Monica without regard for his own life. However, unlike most of these adventures where the meet-cute turns to a blossoming relationship that solely relies on the male protagonist’s ability to protect the female from her enslavers, it’s a welcome change where both the male and female counterparts are on equal footing.
Where Leo and Monica are the meat of First Love, the supporting cast is what makes Miike’s colorful escapade so delightful. There's Kase (Sometani), a try-hard yakuza kid who is going behind his gang’s back as a detective whose goal is to intercept a massive shipment of drugs that he wants to sell for his own profit. It’s incredible that Kase is able to manage his double life for so long, because throughout the film he makes one poor decision after another, which leads to him being the butt of a lot of violence. Julie (Becky) also lights up the screen as the vengeful girlfriend whose boyfriend was murdered by Kase, and manages to connect the dots of the dimwit’s scheme before anyone else. Wild-eyed and clever, with a knack for survival like no other, she’s a superb fan favorite in the making.
Miike’s latest is an outrageous romp that manages to find new and exciting ways to depict extreme violence (something the director is quite skilled in visually) while also cherishing every character so their final breaths feel earned. It’s incredible that a movie in which toy dogs light bombs and limbs get lopped off has a sincerity woven into it. Miike’s balancing act reveals him as a man who is effortlessly comfortable with his craft, and with over 100 movies under his belt it’s no surprise.
Yet while this vibrant and energetic version of Miike is certainly a blast, it can feel underwhelming when you know this was the same man who made the visceral and disturbed Visitor Q and the bone-chilling Audition. Miike is a man who built his career off of deeply upsetting and boundary-pushing genre cinema, and his recent output just feels a little too produced and overseen by the Japanese government (this movie, in fact, was made in a weird promotion for the Olympics, set to take place in 2020). Despite all this, First Love’s warm and tender nature keeps it an endearing and heartwarming addition to the master’s filmography.
A version of this review ran as part of our Fantastic Fest coverage.