Directed by Takashi Miike
Written by Masa Nakamura
Starring Becky, Sakurako Konishi and Masataka Kubota
Running time: 1 hour and 48 minutes
by Samuel Antezana
Takashi Miike has 103 directorial credits, according to IMDB, and he continues to prove that he has not lost his knack for orchestrating chaotic action sequences and emotionally driven moments between characters with his latest adrenaline-fueled crime epic. First Love is a crime thriller that centers around the life of a boxer, Leo (Masataka Kubota), who doesn’t say much and doesn’t have anyone in his life. After a seemingly devastating blow to the head that ruins Leo’s winning streak in the ring and sends him to the hospital, a doctor discovers that he has a life-threatening brain tumor. On his way home from the hospital, he bumps into a prostitute, Monica (Sakurako Konishi), and saves her from a strange customer. The customer, however, happens to be a crooked cop involved in a bigger scheme with a young member of the Yakuza, who wants to rob a shipment of drugs from his own gang to sell for himself. Monica, unaware that the young Yakuza has pinned her to take the fall, causes Leo to be involved in a rapidly escalating conflict between the Yakuza and a competing Chinese gang. Unlike Miike’s Dead or Alive crime saga, which is filled with insanely over-the-top violence and a level of machismo that echoes the likes of Sam Peckinpah’s work, First Love serves as a dissection of popular gangster tropes, down to the age old ruminations of honor among thieves that made the classic Yakuza films of Kinji Fukasaku so impactful.
Leo is perhaps one of the only characters who does not seem to fit neatly inside the stereotypical confines that other characters would be within the crime genre. Several other male characters, who are key players during most of the major events of the story, are made up of gang bosses or underlings, such as the young scheming Yakuza, Kase (Shôta Sometani). Kase hints to some of the film’s underlying themes about Japan’s social divide between the young and old, or to be more plain, between the old and the new. This is brought up during a private exchange between Kase and another character. In the scene, Kase struggles to remember a saying his grandfather used when he was younger, “slow and steady wins the race,” to which the other character responds by saying he doesn’t hear the phrase much anymore, “it’s a dead phrase.” A single humorous moment of irony turns out to be the mantra for a majority of the characters in the film and an indicator of how fast their world has become, where gangsters act on their greed before the greater good of their group. The female characters are wonderfully varied considering that many of Miike’s previous films seem more interested in headstrong, male-driven story arcs, where women tend to serve as little more than love interests, eye candy or canon fodder. While Monica is perhaps the most stereotypical character, given her damsel-in-distress status, there are two other wildly different, but equally deadly, women that find themselves caught up in the conflict of the film. One of them, Julie, the girlfriend of a lower-ranked Yakuza, proves she is one of the toughest (and craziest) females to come out of a film as of late, earning herself several scene-stealing bits guaranteed to make you root for her despite what side she may be on. The third female is a character I do not want to reveal too much about, since her presence is one of the most unique, but I will say that she embodies some of the aforementioned themes about honor among criminals to surprising lengths.
Those rolling their eyes at the range of thematic elements examined in this review will be happy to know that Miike still delivers the bloody goods when the timing is right, but do not expect off-the-chart levels of violence à la Ichi the Killer (2001) or Yakuza Apocalypse (2015). The violent set pieces come in bursts and the level of absurdity ramps up slightly towards the latter half. One of my personal highlights came in the form of a Monty Python-esque moment where a drugged-up character gets shot multiple times and one of their arms is cut off, only to stupidly acknowledge the predicament they find themselves in with a giggle and a ridiculous smile. It’s gloriously entertaining.
I can’t say that I’m disappointed with any part of Miike’s latest feature. It’s an ode to the Yakuza classics that have inspired some of his own films and yet it never falls into the same beats that other filmmakers often try to emulate. Masa Nakamura’s script is sharp; the characters hop out of the screen and feel super developed from the moment they are introduced, to the moment they leave (or are violently removed from a scene). The thoughtful undertones of the film set it apart from other crime movies by offering even the most cold-hearted members of its roster a chance to say their piece and be truly understood by viewers. To me, that’s indicative of a powerful filmmaking voice that Miike has retained and continues to showcase throughout his career.