You may be well wonder what Takashi Miike, the prolific Japanese director known best for his portrayals of over-the-top violence and twisted sexuality, is doing making a film with the innocent-sounding title of First Love. After all, his 2001 film Ichii the Killer was banned in multiple countries and extensively censored in others due to graphic sexual violence, while his 13 Assassins (2010) is widely considered the bloodiest samurai movie ever made. On a more intimate scale, there’s Audition, which features needles being put in places needles were never meant to go. Miike is no one-note pony, however, having made films in diverse genres including children’s fantasy, musical comedy, and the road movie, and he successfully blends several styles in First Love.
The central characters in First Love are Leo (Masataka Kubota), a successful young boxer whose trainer berates him for not showing more emotion in the ring. The reason is not far to seek: Leo was abandoned as a baby, and has never learned to care for anyone or anything. Oh, and not long after losing a match he learns he has an inoperable brain tumor. Enter Monica (Sakurako Kanishi), a damaged young woman forced into prostitution to pay off her father’s debts. She’s also a drug addict and is haunted by her father’s abusive spirit, and yet there remains something essentially innocent about her.
First Love, with a screenplay by Masa Nakamura, is equal parts hard-boiled pulp fiction and fast-paced comedy. The main action of the story involves an inept crook named Kase (Shota Sometani), who attempts to steal a shipment of drugs (white powder features in numerous scenes). There’s also a hard-as-nails moll, Julie (Becky Rabone), who does her best to out-ruthless the men, a crooked cop, an aging crime boss, a one-armed gangster, and a lot of other types that you’ve seen before in Miike movies. There are also all sorts of unexpected bursts of violence, and while I’m no fan of violence for its own sake, in a Miike film these moments are as essential as the punctuation in this sentence. Did I mention there’s also a middle-aged guy dancing on the subway dressed only in his Y-fronts, and extended discussions about the decline in honor among the yakuza? First Love is nuts, but in a good way, and it’s certainly never boring.
First Love may not be top-drawer Miike, but it’s a well-made movie crammed with action, humor, and heart, along with ample servings of the director’s trademark graphic violence. Director of Photography Nobuyasu Kita achieves a clean yet distinctive visual style that complements the fast-moving story (it takes place over a single night), while editor Akira Kamiya deftly knits it all together. Kita’s cinematography left a particularly strong impression on me: I don’t think there’s a single shot in the film that’s not visually interesting, and often we are treated to unexpected views of quite ordinary locations. That’s a nice bonus whether you’re a diehard Miike fan or someone relatively new to his work. | Sarah Boslaugh