Review: First Love

Image: Well Go USA Entertainment

Director: Takashi Miike

Starring: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Shôta Sometani, Nao Ohmori

Takashi Miike is a busy bee. A seriously busy bee. Since 1991 he has garnered 103 directing credits, many of which are feature films. In the two years since his acclaimed Blade of the Immortal showed at the London Film Festival, Miike has released two new films, and this year returned with the bloody, unhinged, and often hilarious First Love. It is a labyrinthine gangster thriller with a healthy sense of its own ridiculousness and visual pyrotechnics to match its brightly-coloured poster.

With First Love Miike and writer Masa Nakamura have put together a plot that is often of less significance than the colourful characters that populate it. Character number one is struggling young boxer Leo. Abandoned as a child and now told he has a terminal brain tumour, things aren’t really going his way. Silent and surly, Masataka Kubota makes him instantly sympathetic, somewhere between a stray dog and a kicked puppy. On the back of this run of bad fortune Leo stumbles into the thick a guns-and-drugs plot that provides all manner of entertainment.

Things are kicked into gear by Kase, a small fish in the big pond of a yakuza crime gang, who hatches a frankly idiotic plan with corrupt cop Otomo (Ohmori). Kase’s intention is to rob his own gang of a shipment of crystal meth, attacking his friend Yasu (Takahiro Miura) in the process. Meanwhile Otomo will kidnap the meth-addicted Monica (Konishi) who Yasu and his girlfriend Julie force to work off her father’s debt as a prostitute. Kase believes the yakuza will see this mess and blame Monica and the Chinese triad gangs. At this point Otomo will hand over Monica to be killed and sneak off unsuspected; Kase will get himself arrested for a minor scuffle and when he is in prison the yakuza and triad gangs will wipe each other out, all whilst Otomo is selling on the drugs. Got it?

From this you have likely deduced that this is a film populated by awful, awful people – and that Kase’s plans will likely unravel. Indeed, between Yasu getting killed, Monica escaping Otomo and ending up with poor old Leo, and Julie out to avenge her boyfriend’s death, things get a little tricky for our thieves. Before long the film descends into a many-way chase after the stolen drugs and several people, including some who – like the innocent Monica and Leo – haven’t actually got anything to do with this. It’s all charged with a capricious zest, and all riotously entertaining.

First Love’s best moments come when the film leans into the latent humour in the over-the-top gangland shenanigans. The show is well and truly stolen by Shôta Sometani as Kase and Japanese ‘tarento’ celeb Becky, whose performance as the bloodthirsty Julie hangs somewhere between enraged and deranged. Sometani gets big laughs playing on the ‘gangland honour’ trope. Kase is in fact as unscrupulous as they come, turning from a quiet background yakuza who spies his shot at glory into a greedy, frenzied killer who somehow manages to go through almost an entire film populated by smart, hardened criminals acting like an goofy, unprincipled fool.

This is not all-out comedy, of course, and the action is bloody, brutal and highly stylised by Miike. The set-pieces have the feel of being controlled by a master of the art, throwing everything he has at the screen to glorious effect. There are an overwhelming number of characters involved here, but Miike and cast manage to make them all register. The film’s climactic barrage of action is kept entertaining not just by its tongue-in-cheek violence, but its amusing ‘rogue’s gallery’ approach, presenting us with one caricatured wrong’un after another to be dispatched in a string of inventive ways.

The dark humour and eye-catching action cannot take First Love all the way to glory, sadly. Even at 108 minutes, it feels a bit overlong, stretching out its third act so much that the goodwill towards it fades. At its best First Love is silly and cartoonish, so when the tone strays into something more earnest, the film loses its way somewhat. It becomes apparent as we move through the film that the its heart and soul lies with Leo and Monica. Whilst they are the film’s most sympathetic characters and add a necessary morality and warmth to the despicable dealings, the decision to zero in on them in a more serious, romantic way feels like a tacked-on drag compared to the zip of the previous action. The prospect was there for an entirely cynical, silly romp, or an elegantly interwoven love story – First Love doesn’t quite do either.

Nevertheless, the film proves that after his many, many outings as director Takashi Miike has not the lost the zealous, tongue-in-cheek energy that makes a film like this a success. For the most part this is amped-up pulpy fun and at its height becomes utterly deranged. Not everything works, but in a movie that feels like the filmic equivalent of a gleeful paint splatter, that comes with its charm.

Andrew Young