First Love is a love story, but right from the opening scenes — which feature a bloody, severed head being flung into the street, expression still twitching — it’s clear the film defies the expectations of a movie labeled “romance.” Of course, it’d be foolish to expect anything less from Takashi Miike.
Miike has a reputation for extreme, stylized violence and pushing boundaries as far as they’ll go — look no further than the controversial Ichi the Killer or the horror staple Audition. But on top of that, he’s prolific and unparalleled, having directed more than a staggering 100 films over the course of his career.
First Love is a reminder that Miike hasn’t had to choose between quality or quantity. The ingredients that make up the gangland-set romance aren’t necessarily fresh — Miike pulls from every gangster movie you’ve ever seen to put his new film together — but that hardly matters when they’re all deployed with such aplomb.
Leo (Masataka Kubota), a young boxer, lives a somewhat listless existence, having been abandoned by his family as a baby and boxing just because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. Even his manager, who tries to get him to demonstrate some iota of emotion at his wins in the ring, eventually gives up on the matter. But the discovery of a fatal brain tumor shakes his stoicism — as does his run-in with Yuri, (Sakurako Konishi), who goes by “Monica,” a young woman working as a prostitute to pay off her father’s debt to the yakuza. Both of them are stuck in dead ends, yet as they begin to bond, they’re given the slightest chance at a better future.
Also in the mix are a corrupt cop, Otomo (Nao Ōmori), working hand-in-hand with a yakuza, Kase (Shōta Sometani), to intercept a shipment of drugs to get rich and incite a gang war, respectively. However, their collective level of competence is piteously low, turning what would have been a relatively simple scheme into a series of calamities that bring more and more characters into play. Still, never once do the separate threads of First Love’s plot become difficult to follow or distinguish, as Miike keeps things as clear-cut as the (increasingly inventive) action scenes.
The sense that First Love is a Frankensteinian mix of elements of other stories also comes through in the way each character represents a stock role as filtered through Miike’s bizarre sensibilities. Monica, the ingenue struggling with drug addiction, is haunted by hallucinations of her abusive father clad in tighty-whities. Would-be-punk Kase’s desire to be a legitimate gangster manifests in macho posturing (he literally alters his voice to try to sound more serious) that falls apart as soon as his plans begin to go awry. Juri (Becky), a gangster’s girlfriend, turns into an unstoppable killing machine when vengeance is put on the table.
The film’s cast, plot, and action might come off cartoonish if not for the way that things immediately escalate from there, ascending into territory that feels distinctly Miike, and accordingly outsized and unpredictable. The most stylized sequence in the film is a surprise, but, at the same time, almost feels inevitable. How else could Miike illustrate the climax of his gangster fantasy except … well, it’s too good to spoil.
That it all comes together instead of falling apart has everything to do with the way Miike treats tender emotions just as passionately as the violence and eccentricity that more easily characterize the film — First Love is ultimately as soft-hearted as it is bloody. Leo and Monica’s immediate bond doesn’t take a back seat to the gangster violence that surrounds them, and is depicted just as earnestly. There’s a soap opera sweetness to the young would-be lovers that Miike cranks up to tearjerker territory rather than making them objects of ridicule.
That earnestness is one of the other themes that tends to be consistent in Miike’s work. Even in a film like Zebraman, which centers on a 3rd grade teacher who begins spending his nights dressing up as a superhero from a cancelled TV show from his childhood, viewers aren’t invited to laugh at so much as share in and become just as ardent about his fantasy. First Love hinges on Miike’s skill for drawing in his audience with new angles on old characters and a constantly moving plot. He turns what could have felt like rehashed territory for the story of two doomed young lovers into delightfully transporting fare.
First Love opens in Los Angeles and New York on Sept. 27. The film expands nationally on Oct. 7.