An emotionally reticent boxer with a brain tumour becomes entangled with an exploited sex worker ravaged by addiction. Over the course of one night, they must repel bent cops, the Yakuza, Chinese gangsters, a Triad assassin and a psychotic girlfriend. As the deadly net closes in on them, a chaotic showdown of violence becomes ever more inevitable.
Incredibly, Takashi Miike has directed over four films a year for the last 25 years. He is not only one of the most prolific directors of all time but also one of the most fearless. Blazing a taboo torching trail through any genre he chooses, he owns the dubious rights to some of the most utterly fucked up cinema on the planet. Visitor Q and Ichi the Killer… get back in the corner and face the wall. Still fundamentally cult, his work tends to be stumbled on by the masses, rather than actively sought. Staunch genre fans, however, never miss an opportunity to feast at his latest banquet of the bonkers.
First Love finds Miike in a somewhat playful mood as he introduces us to a broad spectrum of colourful heroes and villains. The comic book tone is fresh and zingy, even featuring an animated sequence, with engaging work from the eclectic cast. Masataka Kubota is charming as Leo the angst-ridden boxer draped in a crisp James Dean aesthetic. Sakurako Konishi plays the junkie prostitute he is fated to protect with a reserved innocence, at odds with her enforced promiscuity and narcotic indulgence. The chemistry is palpable between them as they navigate the mean streets of Tokyo and help unpack each other’s damaged baggage.
However, it is the Japanese tarento Becky that steals the show as Julie, the unhinged girlfriend of a murdered drug dealer. The subject of an extramarital scandal in her homeland, she oozes high maintenance mania from every pore. Despite her characters ugly self-entitlement and petulant egotism, her charisma and screen presence is utterly infectious. Her rampage of retribution is the high point of the movie and hopefully heralds a new direction in her career.
The Jazz infused soundtrack from serial collaborator Koji Endo is effortlessly poised and beautifully utilised. A sleek black panther of a score that exudes class and provides impetus and atmosphere in all the right places.
Whilst the pace never lags, and the visuals are consistently gratifying, a film with a steady build like this places a heavy burden on the shoulders of its climactic final reels. Thankfully, First Love delivers as our protagonists go wild in the aisles of a well-stocked hardware store. Vicious swordplay, kinetic gun battles, exhaustive beat downs and a guy with one arm rocking a pump-action shotty, make sure the violence quota is satisfyingly accomplished.
First Love is, in relative terms, a more linear and accessible picture from Miike the master of misrule, but it is still sticky with the dissident fingerprints of its mephistophelian director. Funny and ferocious in equal measure, its hermetic universe and tight timeline make for a thrill-packed ride of revenge and underdog heroics.
If you are a fan of the director’s work then this will do nothing to diminish your view of his awesome imagination and unpasteurised talent. If not, then this is as good a platform as any to launch a deep dive into his humongous oeuvre. But a word of warning, the waters can get very much darker and disturbingly murky than here.
By his own confession, it has become hard to make Japanese films that are malicious and challenging and still turn a profit. Thus, First Love presents us with a creatively tethered mainstream Miike, a rottweiler that snarls and yaps but never slips its lead. Don’t forget, we are talking about a filmmaker who once formed his opening titles from the fresh spermatic fluid of a peeping Tom. But fret not. A shackled Miike movie is still far more entertaining than 95% of other directors who profess to be edgy and progressive.
Comedy, Crime, Drama | Japan, 2020 |108m 19s | 15 | Cinemas & Digital HD from 14th February and Blu-ray & DVD 24th February | Signature Entertainment | Dir. Takashi Miike| Cast includes. Becky, Sakurako Konishi, Masataka Kubota, Takahiro Miura, Jun Murakami, Nao Ohmori