First Love (2019)
May 3, 2020 5:45 PM - Subscribe

One night in Tokyo, a self-confident young boxer and a prostitute get caught up in a drug-smuggling plot involving organized crime, corrupt cops and a female assassin.

The film is the prolific auteur, Takashi Miike, at his most fun and anarchic, a noir-tinged yakuza film blending genres in the story of a young boxer and a call girl, who fall passionately in love while getting innocently caught up in a drug-smuggling scheme over the course of one night in Tokyo.

Anthony O'Connor:In terms of Miike’s other work, First Love is a much more crowd pleasing affair, eschewing the genuinely shocking gore of Audition or Ichi the Killer for slick, but non-gratuitous blood-letting. Tone-wise, the film feels a bit like a Japanese riff on Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance and a bunch of other ‘90s flicks. Performances are rock solid, with the always reliable Masataka Kubota making a solid lead, and Nao Omori providing a deliciously schlubby turn. However, it’s the recording artist known as Becky who has the most fun as the vengeful Julie, who doesn’t so much chew the scenery as set it alight and snort the ashes.

Tasha Robinson: It’s a blast. Some of Miike’s crime dramas can be humorless, dour, or overwhelmingly gory — he’s an extremely prolific director, sometimes averaging four films per year, and he’s worked in a lot of different modes. But he has a notable streak of dark humor as well, and it frequently emerges in First Love. Many of the characters are oversized stereotypes, like the honor-bound yakuza member who carries a katana and once cut the arm off a member of the triad that’s gunning for his crew. It says something that their mortal enmity — with the triad member emerging from prison with bloody vengeance on his mind — barely rates as a minor sub-subplot in this crowded narrative.

But part of First Love’s humor is in the use of familiar types doing familiar things in particularly grandiose ways. Their face-off, teased throughout the film, reads a bit like a gag because it feels like something more suited to a samurai epic than a gangland picture. But when it finally comes, it’s thrilling.

Leo and Monica’s budding romance is treated more seriously, but not in a particularly sentimental way. She’s damaged and needy; he’s a bit of a gentle dope, spending most of the movie fairly removed from the action because he’s still processing his diagnosis. It takes a fairly extreme crisis to wake him up to what’s going on around him. Their relationship isn’t entirely satisfying — her weakness and his blankness are both detriments to the story — but it does lead to one of the film’s most striking visual and emotional moments, as Leo inadvertently gives her a new way to look at the specter of her sexually abusive father.

Mostly, though, First Love is the kind of film that’s designed for seen-it-all genre fans who know these tropes (the scheming criminal, the dewy ingenues, the cold-hearted lady assassin, and so on) and appreciate seeing them tweaked in new directions, and treated with an air of fond familiarity rather than dour airlessness. First Love isn’t a comedy, but it piles up the abrupt surprises and “I can’t believe that just happened” laughs. Miike doesn’t treat any of the storylines here particularly seriously, but he does create a significant tension around how it’ll all come out in the end. The film is troubled in some ways — it’s so overcrowded that it’s initially hard to tell the characters apart or sort out their agendas, and the buildup is much messier than the payoff. But it’s all worth it for that end result, which is, inevitably, fucking wild.

Alexa Dalby:Rampaging through the various groups is avenging girlfriend Julie (Becky Rabone), determinedly wielding her samurai sword and refusing to die no matter what happens to her.

As all these threads weave together in the best pulp-fiction way, they lead to an absurd extended bloodbath in various locations, including a hardware store. It ends with something so credibility defying – or for budgetary reasons? – could only be expressed in animation.

It’s typical Miike, beautifully realised, and such guilty fun – who’d have thought you’d be laughing your head off at this politically incorrect surfeit of bloody decapitations?

posted by Carillon (3 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First Love is streaming in the US via local libraries using Hoopla.
posted by Etrigan at 8:06 PM on May 3, 2020

I've got to check this out. I do NOT suggest deep diving into Miike's other work, unless you have a very, very strong stomach.
posted by Catblack at 4:57 PM on May 6, 2020

Not even...*Googles*....Ninja Kids!!!?
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:21 PM on May 10, 2020

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