When history’s overtaken all of us, I think Takashi Miike’s will be a name left standing. For one thing, the Japanese genre-master is capital-P prolific. 2017’s Blade of the Immortal was touted as his 100th feature film, and since then he’s directed two more features. Oh, and some television. Because why not?
Always reliable, Miike’s output can sometimes be lumped as serviceable: wild action and gonzo anime adaptations making up a large chunk of his output recently. With eras of the filmmaker’s history classifiable as particularly offbeat or low-key, Miike occasionally puts forth some terrific work. Luckily, First Love falls closer to the later.
Director: Takashi Miike
Release date: May 17, 2019 (Cannes Premiere), September 27, 2019 (Wide release)
Over the course of a night in Tokyo, we’re saddled with Leo (Masataka Kubota), an up-and-coming young boxer who himself gets winded with some big news following a mid-match blackout: he’s terminal. With a ballooning tumor in his head, he steps out onto the streets of Shinjuku in a daze, intersecting with runaway dope-fiend Monica (Sakurako Konishi).
Caught up in a wild drug deal with a gangster and crooked cop looking to double-cross the yakuza, Monica is saved by Leo when he absent-mindedly decides to deck her pursuer. This gets him involved in a night of mayhem over a single, well-thrown punch.
With its crime-gone-awry premise, First Love starts with the trappings of your classic crime noir story. Miike weaves a narrative of yakuza power moves and hapless boxers in the wrong place at the wrong time and our urban adventure benefits greatly from the clear-cut structure. A criticism to be leveled at some of Miike’s more-abstract work is that the films can drag a bit, with plot beats understated to the point of potential confusion along with his bloody rollercoaster rides. First Love sets us up with familiar tropes and clear communication, even if there’s a bit of overwhelming exposition.
Exposition here is a nice thing though, with Leo and Monica’s relationship over their calamitous evening arguably the core of the film. Leo’s working through a potentially life-threatening condition while Monica’s been living as a doped-up callgirl for most of her recent memory. Her posturing as a sex object, though never exploited for us to see, has an ugly tinge if you pause to give it thought. Yakuza films (and Japanese genre work, in general) occasionally reek with an air of misogyny and though Miike toes the line at times, First Love comes down to empowering its lady leads.
Besides Monica, Julie (Becky) is the girlfriend of the drug dealer whose stash is snatched and is initially subjected to what we fear might be a case of exploitative violence. Her arc over the course of the film, from victim to wild bloodletter, is at least better than subjecting another woman to acts of casual torture.
Though Miike is no stranger to torture (Ichi the Killer fans are no doubt desensitized to any and all cinematic carnage, at this point) First Love actually feels fairly tame compared to some of the auteur’s more… expressive work. Honestly, First Love is all the better for it. Once the ball’s rolling, bullets fly and swords slice, but we never get any Kill Bill blood geysers or a body count to make The Wild Bunch blush. To be clear, a whole lot of people die in First Love. Compared to the scale of Miike’s work, our savage shenanigans feel relatively contained.
In general, Miike’s focus on the characters and the happenstance beats of the plot give us a lot of humor, though far be it from laugh-out-loud comedy. There’s a tinge of self-awareness in Otomo (Nao Ohmori) and Kase’s (Shota Sometani) initial botching of the drug raid, and the crooked cop and ambitious yakuza play up a sort of Jerry Lundegaard, Fargo-Esque dilemma through the film.
With the story taking precedent, Miike’s stylistic trappings are toned down as well. Despite that, First Love remains a visually-tight tour of Tokyo’s neon nightlife featuring the occasional surreal flourish. Monica, suffering from dependency on drugs she’s trying to kick, occasionally hallucinates an image of her abusive father, specter-like and looming. More than an easy visual trope, the hallucinations move the plot along and, because of their consistency and narrative backing, feel less like easy outs for the script and more like a part of the plot. When style meets story, everyone wins.
I’d be lying if I said towards its finale, First Love felt like it had a little fat on its ribs. Not a long film at 108 minutes, but not a breeze, the carnage might wear a little thin and the intersections of yakuza bosses and rivalries can puzzle at times. First Love does manage to clean itself up for an ending of interest given Miike’s usual conclusions.
For a filmmaker whose output is greater even than historically-abundant directors like Woody Allen, Miike always amazes me with just how good he usually is. It’s the consistency of his “solid” work that reflects his mastery of film production, efficiently plotting and scheduling the technicalities of working in the Japanese studio system of today. It’s work like First Love that comes along to remind us that Takashi Miike is an artist, painting in bloody swaths of katana arcs and bumbling bits of drama, with the occasional human heart to pulse and keep us invested. Sometimes those hearts even stay in their owners’ bodies!