First Love. 2019
Directed by Takashi Miike
Starring Becky, Masataka Kubota, Nao Omori, Masaaki Uchino, Shota Sometani, Takehiro Miura, Sakurako Konishi, Jun Murakami, and Sansei Shiomi
A young boxer and a call girl get caught up in a drug-smuggling scheme over the course of one night in Tokyo.
One of the upsides of directing over 100 films to date is that filmmaker Takashi Miike (known for sadistic violence, warped humor, and tone blending, plenty of which is on display here) knows how to take clichés such as boxers with tumors and abandoned prostitutes in possession of gangsters, without making them feel like a parody or boring. Admittedly, there’s nothing new or original in First Love, but the high-energy madcap setpieces (including a one-armed man with a shotgun) are enough to excite.
Leo (Masataka Kubota, the first of quite a few regular Takashi Miike collaborators on-board) isn’t just potentially losing his boxing career from his latest defeat, he’s told that a brain tumor is sucking away his time and that there’s not much left. Soon after, he becomes entangled with a forced prostitute named Monica (Sakurako Konishi) fleeing both client and captors alike, inadvertently running into Leo’s two-fisted assistance. That client also happens to be part of an inside job involving the Yakuza and a crooked police officer looking to steal a massive quantity of drugs being stored within the vicinity of Monica. It’s not long before everyone wants the drugs back and some form of revenge against someone, subsequently putting their lives in danger.
It’s also not long before Takashi Miike stops taking any of this relatively seriously (around 45 minutes), as people are diving onto car hoods with horror music cues, others walk away from car wrecks entirely unscathed, gore becomes a punchline, animated comic strips fill in for the limited budget, and bullets are shrugged off. Did I also mention that someone loses their arm and comes back later with a shotgun? The narrative here is nothing complex; it’s your standard turf war between Japan and China with some scheming and betrayal peppered in, all as love blooms in the foreground with our protagonists trying to survive the night and escape the mess neither of them wanted. It’s a delight waiting for and witnessing whatever ludicrous thing happens next.
Surprisingly, Leo and Monica are also given numerous quiet interactions, not only getting to know one another but helping each other out through various traumas. Most notably is Monica’s hallucinations (part of her drug withdrawals) that manifest in the form of her evil father underneath a white bedsheet (basically, a living ghost that inspires creative cinematography for maximum eeriness), to which she consistently freaks out over. However, while riding the train Leo gives her half of his headphones turning out some cheery music, also having an effect on the behavior of her hallucinations. Its playful filmmaking that once again showcases Takashi Miike is never just about buckets of blood.
There are also some darker themes (ones that are also hammered home, especially during a packed epilogue) involving Leo’s sudden shift in personality to become more heroic, carefree, and protective upon realizing his days are numbered, as he normally struggles to express emotions. Coupled with the fact that Monica is unwillingly a drug addict at the hands of her gangster owners, it makes for a romance founded on tragedy and healing that is easy to root for. Naturally, Leo and Monica are at the center of the story, which is important to note because it’s difficult to care about anything else. The climax has multiple battles going on, and not all of them are necessarily engaging beyond the always pleasant violence.
First Love is not fully successful at eliciting emotion like it clearly aspires to at some junctures, but it still works considering the characters are well-acted and are given those aforementioned long walks periodically throughout the night to bond as human beings. Masa Nakamura’s script is also clever, never letting you pinpoint whether you are watching just a dumb action movie or if there will be a twist that explains the logic behind key moments of insanity. For those not familiar with Takashi Miike, First Love is both an easily accessible entry point that is also one of his better works. It’s a hyper-violent meet cute night of survival that highlights the importance of choosing to live in the face of suffering.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com