A Takashi Miike film. Don’t be afraid. Jump into his cinematic world. While he isn’t always perfect, good or bad, his films hold unique and fascinating wonders for cinephiles.
“First Love” (“Hatsukoi” in the original Japanese, is Miike’s best film since 2010’s “13 Assassins.” This is a wild ride but just wild enough. Being a Miike film, we are treated to scenes of the bizarre and macabre, but this particular film holds some of the most tender and heartfelt moments in the director’s career.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a boxer. He discovers that he has an inoperable brain tumor. In an act of fate, he rescues a call-girl named Monica (a quite wonderful Sakurako Konishi), from a corrupt cop and by doing so, sets off a bizarre chain of events during which the Yakuza and the Triads battle it out on the city’s streets.
Miike and his screenwriter Masa Nakamura have a batshit-crazy blast slamming their audience between half a dozen stories of crime, corrupt cops, a woman on a path of furious vengeance, many betrayals, mistaken identities, and two lost beings finding each other in a world of violent coincidences.
Kubota and Konishi are compelling as lead characters who are much more than over their heads amid all the madness– true acting honors, however, go to Sumtani Shota and Uchino Seiyo.
Shota is Kase, a lower-level Yakuza who teams up with a crooked detective (Seiyo) to rip off his gang, steal a stash of drugs and get out of the life.
His manic-yet-tempered performance that recalls De Niro’s Johnny Boy (“Mean Streets”; 1973) captivates while Seiyo is utterly convincing as a jaded cop who is as gruff as he is distrusting but sees his “out” and agrees to partner with the very criminal he knows is bad news. His tunnel vision could very well be his downfall.
To make sure we know we are in Miike territory, one of the first shots is a decapitated head rolling into the neon-lit streets. The director prepares us for the bizarro yet to come but this film is quite balanced whereas in some of his previous films, Miike has had the tendency to let the lunacy overtake storytelling.
“First love” begins as a crime thriller and becomes more. Miike gives us tonal changes every twenty minutes, or so, but they are all deftly handled. He move from thriller to comedy to violent action to slapstick and back again with a flawless ease. We even get a cartoon sequence and a scene of pure horror that jolted me out of my seat!
The film reaches its madcap brilliance in a wild sequence set in the Japanese equivalent to our Lowe’s. It is here where the yakuza, the Chinese gangsters, the cop and his criminal sidekick, our hero and heroine, and other assorted baddies meet in a violent showdown as they shoot and cut (some excellent swordplay here!) their way through the aisles. Miike cranks it up here with vicious violence and squishy sound effects as the bullets fly and the blood sprays! Much of it courtesy of a cool silent shotgun-toting character named “One Armed Wang.” He is only on screen for a short time and has absolutely no dialogue, but his presence is unforgettable.
Among all the blood and betrayal lies a sweet story of two lost souls in the characters of Leo and Monica. Leo is walking through the night and all of the insanity that he stumbles unto, as his doctor has told him he doesn’t have long to live. He feels his life is over and he doesn’t know how to spend his final days.
Monica isn’t a prostitute by her own doing. Her father sold her to a drug dealer to pay off his debts. She’s picked up a drug habit (also not her own doing) and is thrust out into the night with the crooked cop, all the while having rather creepy hallucinations as she goes into withdrawal.
The meeting of Leo and Monica and how the film leads them through their combined fate is the heart of the film. Both are in a dark world by accident and must navigate it together. Watching the two of them give each other the strength to carry on and fight to stay alive is absolutely beautiful. Miike makes sure we are endeared to Leo and Monica and cheer for them to survive. It is their innocence betrayed that gives this film its humanistic beating heart.
With neon red and rain-soaked cinematography from Nobuyasu Kita and a rocking guitar-tinged score from Koji Endo (“13 Assassins”; 2010), Takeshi Miike’s “First Love” is a refreshing shot of cinematic adrenaline. My love for this film can be summed up with a quote from the late Gene Siskel… “THIS is why I go to the movies.”