First Love (2019)

How good is Takashi Miike as a director? A man who has directed over one hundred titles, how many would you deem great pieces of cinema? In his peak years at the turn of the millennium, he was churning out five or six titles a year, but at what cost? While perhaps slightly before Miike’s career really took off, in his 1999 book looking over the past decade of Japanese cinema, leading critic Mark Schilling only referenced two Miike works, one of which, “The Bird People in China”, he wasn’t completely complimentary of.

As such, Miike’s career could be wedged more into that of the “cult”. Starting off in V-cinema, before building to more mainstream works, many of his films in the latter Nineties was extreme yakuza pieces of high creativity, but at times wobbly composure.

You could pretty much get your hands on any Miike film, if you looked hard enough, from the Nineties or early Naughties after the DVD wave came in, off the back of titles such as “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer”. There was no doubt that these films were a lot of fun. But, from a cult perspective. How good, genuinely, are many of his films, on which many look back fondly?

As international recognition increased, as did expectation. Could Miike still be considered a cult director, with festival accolades and bigger budgets? Indeed, much of what he has directed over the last decade, if not for much longer, would be considered average at best. The wilder movies have rarely been offset by more assured films, as they were around two decades ago. And there have certainly been periods when his films weren’t as easy to come by as they once were.

But enough about my DVD collection, he’s directed a new film. And “First Love” fits well into the mould of his late-Nineties work. This is a fast-paced romp of extreme violence and humour; Yakuza wars, lone heroes and insane characters. “First Love” is the most fun I’ve had watching a Miike film in many a year, but, like much of those Nineties works, is it any good?

Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a young boxer with a seemingly bright future. About to win a bout, he is hit with a sucker punch to the head and is floored. Scans reveal that he has a brain tumour, causing him to fall in the fight. He is lost at the news; everything seemingly over.

Also in Shinjuku, yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani) is plotting to ambush his own organisation’s drug running. Under agreement with the police to not deal drugs, Kase teams up with low-life cop Otomo (Nao Omori) to get himself out of organised crime. He will take the drugs from his own men and pass them on to Otomo, taking the heat for the drugs with the police, but putting the blame on the Chinese with his family, leading to a war which Kase will miss; leaving prison in two-to-three years after everyone has wiped each other out.

So goes his plan, anyway. Otomo is to take care of drug-addict prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi), who lives at the apartment where the drugs will be stored; while a low-level Chinese is given the task of handling the drug dealer’s girlfriend. Unfortunately for Kase, the girlfriend fights off the Chinese, while Monica flees Otomo screaming from her drug hallucinations, straight passed to wandering Leo. Protecting Monica, Leo gives Otomo a swift punch and floors him, taking his police badge.

Rumours spill throughout the streets, and Kase has the drugs, but his organisation know he has double-crossed them. Otomo needs to get his badge back off Leo and Monica. And the Chinese, who believe Monica holds the drugs, want to get hold of them themselves. All of which leads to a shoot-out of various interests and directions.

Much like the opening six minutes of “Dead or Alive”, there is a lot going on: a lot of characters are introduced; and you’re well aware that you will not be sitting through a conventional film. Humour is an element of “First Love” that very much stands out; and this is a good thing. Little in this film is to be taken seriously, with silly jokes and exuberant acting. Indeed, Shota Sometani stands out in his role as the double-crossing Kase, playing him with a real sense of glee at the role. Fight scenes are played out with a tongue firmly in the cheek, and all action scenes come with a laugh on the side.

The most deadpan characters in the film are Leo and Monica: a young man with promise seemingly condemned to an early grave; and a drug addict haunted by her abusive father wherever she goes. As the film’s hero, Masataka Kubota barely cracks a smile all film.

As with any Yakuza film, the large number of key characters can make things either confusing or deter interest in following the plot, craving more fight scenes. Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage” comes to mind as a modern Yakuza comparison early on, but as things progress, this is very much a Miike film, ending more with a feel of “Full Metal Yakuza” or “City of Lost Souls”. Indeed, the finale comes with a hint of “Dead or Alive” unexpectedness.

Like much of Miike’s work, it’s fair to say that in parts “First Love” is a little clunky in making everything marry up nicely, and there could have been more of this and less of that, but the experimentation to make the bits that work comes at a cost of things that don’t. The end shot, however, shows a little more maturity in Miike as a director. Leo and Monica settle into their new, humble life together in a shot that is sombre and static, and is a welcome conclusion to end what madness has come before.    

With “First Love”, Miike has returned to the style which made his name. A director wearing many hats over the years, some have worked, while others have not. Is “First Love” any good as a film? This is far from the best film you will watch this year, but it will certainly be among the most fun – the break that we all need now and then. And perhaps a fair few years of disappointment have helped us rediscover why we first loved Miike.

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