by Jeremy Clarke.
A boxer with no fear of death. Japanese yakuza, Chinese triads. A bag of drugs. A girl sold into prostitution. Director Takeshi Miike’s latest is a potent cocktail of these ingredients, a mass of mayhem orchestrated with his trademark pace, panache and energy.
And yet, as its 14th February UK release date implies, First Love is also a Valentine’s Day-friendly date movie. Not, admittedly, your average date, but Miike has never been your average director. High-profile titles released in the West like Dead or Alive, Ichi the Killer and Yakuza Apocalypse give an certain idea of what he’s about – life, death and gangsters. This, of course, is only one facet of his multi-nuclear career, which has also seen samurai epics and a musical. If you include his early, made-for-video features of the early 1990s, Miike has now made over a hundred films. Many are highly entertaining and one or two, such as Audition, the sweet romantic film that turns into a truly terrifying horror thriller, might justifiably be termed great. First Love may not quite be Audition, but it’s arguably his best film for years.
Above all, Miike appears to love the process of directing – the fast-paced and, in his case at least, highly creative process of working with actors on movie sets. One of the first films to establish him outside of his native Japan, the gangster thriller Dead or Alive, might reasonably be described as a piece of rubbish so energetically and enthusiastically directed that you can’t take your eyes off it for a second. While the ideas underlying First Love have a little more to them than those of Dead or Alive, it undeniably possesses the same compelling energy that characterises Miike’s best work.
Largely set over a single night in Tokyo, First Love starts out with three separate, character-driven plots. Young boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) becomes utterly fearless on learning that his days are numbered. He runs into his “first love” Monica (Sakurako Konishi), who has been sold into prostitution to pay her abusive father’s debts, and is kept in a drug-addled haze by gangsters. Meanwhile, yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani) strikes a deal with dodgy cop Otomo (Nao Omori) to rip off his own gang by running off with their latest drug drop. An additional storyline concerns a Chinese triad’s readiness to muscle in on the yakuza gang’s territory in Shinjuku, allowing a turf war to erupt when the first three plots collide.
Miike’s over-the-top sensibility is there from the start, as Leo’s latest boxing victory is underscored by a shot of his defeated opponent’s severed head, still blinking in surprise, thrown into a back alley. When we first see Monica getting out of bed, it is in a scene that playfully and briefly recalls the approach of the ghostly Sadako in the iconic Ring movies. There’s lots of very physical, over-the-top acting, with particular note going to the scenery-chewing of Rebecca Eri Rabone (a.k.a. Becky), a Japanese TV celeb who steals the show as Julie, the girlfriend of Yasu (Takahiro Miura), the poor sap who is destined to take the blame for the missing bag of drugs. Two other noteworthy supporting roles go to the actors playing the Chinese. Chia (Mami Fujioka) is an enigmatic assassin who has seen Leo peeling eggs in the cheap restaurant where he has a day job. She bemoans the fact that yakuza no longer operate with the codes of honour of yesteryear. “What matters”, she tells him later in an encounter at gunpoint, “is humanity.” One-Armed Wang (Yen Cheng-kuo) achieves equal screen status without a single line of dialogue by pulling such stunts as one-handedly reloading a pump-action shotgun.
The film’s bravura set piece comprises a prolonged fight between the various opposing factions in and around the aisles of a massive hardware store, a frankly astonishing criss-cross of one-on-one fights featuring fists, swords, guns and the occasional knife. It’s preceded by an equally astounding car chase and followed by a brief, delirious and dazzlingly coloured animation sequence in which a car flies out of a multi-storey car park over the massed heads of armed police and away into the night. It saves the production a hefty amount of difficult stunt or CG work and ought to feel like a cheat, yet it not only works, but also proves a highlight. This is not the first time that Miike has worked with the animation company OLM, listed here as producers, and the imagery of Blood: The Last Vampire’s Katsuya Terada even suffuses the film’s promo art with garish vibrancy.
In their roles as a terminally ill boxer and a prostitute drug addict, Leo and Monica could have wandered in from an art-house romance. Boxing is Leo’s thing and he doesn’t want to get involved in gangs and violence, while Monica has been abused as a child and wants to come off drugs. There’s a sweet scene in the last five minutes, early morning at a level crossing, where the couple run into Ryuji, the classmate who punched her abusive dad back in the day, now an ordinary husband walking with his heavily pregnant wife. Like the scene when a drunken, off-duty nurse sits with the cop Otomo recovering from Leo’s knockout street punch and, for that matter, the first half-hour of Audition, it suggests that although Miike is best known in the West as a director of rapid fire action and exploitation, he could still have a few unexpected tricks up his sleeve.
First Love is released in UK and Ireland cinemas by Signature Entertainment today (14th February 2020), then available on home video exclusively in HMV from 24th February, then all retailers on 2nd March.