Takashi Miike is back, and he’s brought out the goods once more with First Love, having crafted an explosive crowdpleaser proving itself on repeat since showing out for its Directors’ Fortnight premiere at Cannes.
Miike’s style of cinema often whimsical and bizzare in some of its mechanics doesn’t always mingle with some minds. Similarly, it’s all but grown his audience and the approval rate he’s received as an award-winner and selected juror at festivals.
Admittedly, it took me a while to adapt to his style after purchasing Ichi The Killer and his bizzare-as-hell 2004 sword pic, Izo, about fourteen years ago on DVD from a Suncoast outlet. Believe me, as far as acquired tastes go, you can’t go wrong here.
As floundering and all-but extinct as they are in real-life, Miike’s own yakuza underworld isn’t not going down without a fight. You can attribute this line effectively to the role of Leo (Masataka Kubota), a burgeoning boxing champion now faced with the possibility of imminent death when he learns he may have a tumor growing at the base of his brain.
Meanwhile, intermittent politics and infighting have left a Japanese gang at a standstill awaiting orders from headquarters, while they’re faced with a possible war against a local Chinese crime organization and its one-armed leader, Wang, said to be behind a string of beheadings. Unbeknownst to the boss and his cohorts, however, Kase (Shota Sometani) is looking for an out with the help of a bent cop by the name of Otomo (Nao Omori).
Their plan includes a bag of missing drugs and a staged exchange whilst implicating a forced prostitute – a captive girl named Monica (Sakurako Konishi) whose recurring visions of her abusive, Yakuza-indebted father send her running in fear. With Otomo in tow, he gets knocked out by an already pissed Leo who noticed Monica in distress, resulting in the two running off upon seeing Otomo’s badge.
Respite moments of calm are all Leo and Monica have as they keep themselves moving, with Leo suddenly rediscovering a sense of morbid purpose knowing he’s putting his life on the line. It’s an important point of development for Leo who we see earlier on in the film presently at the top of his game. He’s good, and he knows it. Yet, he’s seemingly numb and tuned out from it all, and upon learning more about his character, it’s pretty easy to relate to his reasoning for involving himself with Monica, in accordance with his growing concern for her safety.
Little do Leo and Monica know as their evening excursion hits a fever pitch that the claws are out from both the Japanese and Chinese gangs. Thanks to Otomo and Kase and that the bodycount they’ve left in the wake of their poor planning and malevolence, the bullets, blades and the army of police sirens are headed straight in their direction.
Sometani turns in one of the best performances of his career as the conniving and duplicitous Kase whose sniveling and groveling is all but a moment of pure comedy for a member of their group who has been tailing him. Seasoned thesp Omori also reunites with Miike in the role of Otomo whose dinner one afternoon with Kase discussing their collusion with one another includes an interesting, forward-looking point of comparison between current yakuza and the yakuza of yesteryear.
Above all else though, its actress and TV personality, Becky, who stops the show completely when she gets on screen. Taking on the role of Monica’s pimp, Juri, her penchant for violence is pushed further to the ultimate when she discovers the deadbody of a loved one in her home. A shot of a menacing, bloodied, pantless and barefoot Juri lends viewers one of the most chilling and exciting moments of the whole movie as she partakes in the brutality and bloodletting. She’s a survivor with a method to her madness, demonstrated at one point when she entices a man holding her at gunpoint before completely turning the tables.
At the crux of this latest cinematic rabble rouser, of course, is the love story that ultimately unfolds between Leo and Monica. On an evening where Murphy’s Law all but goes into full effect, both broken individuals now find themselves at an opportune advantage with an air of hope to possibly outmatch their misfortunes. But they each got a fight coming, and on turfs that are both external, as well as internal.
Their love story isn’t one that’s campy or typical, either. Leo and Monica aren’t desperate for companionship. The catalyst that draws them together, however, is that they need help in some way shape or form, and they just happen to find it in a time and place they least expect to.
With First Love, you journey into a rollicking, whimscal tale of self-discovery and worth, and of healing in a city where such things fare less against the odds. The first two or three minutes are all you need to see how violent things are going to get, and in a few instances, but then you have to keep watching just to witness how totally bonkers his Miike’s creative stride grows by the third act, and you better not blink or tune out. Like with the wily and inconsolable Juri, there is certainly a method at work from the auteur.