Takashi Miike is one of the most varied, and certainly the most prolific, filmmakers to emerge from Japan over the past 30 years. In the West he's best known for his horror movies, violent gangster thrillers, and samurai dramas, with movies such as Audition, Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins, and the Dead of Alive movies showing his ability to deliver wild, gory, and highly inventive cinema. But with a filmography that now includes more than 100 movies, he's dipped into pretty much every genre imaginable, including kids' movies, fantasy epics, serious dramas, and video game adaptations.
His ability to effortlessly genre-hop defines his latest movie, First Love. On the face of it this is another gangster drama, with a large cast of yakuza and triad mobsters, and all the shooting, stabbing, and wild bloodshed fans have come to expect from his work. But it's also a sweet romantic drama and uproarious comedy, with a storyline that manages to balance all its disparate elements and large enable cast into a supremely entertaining whole.
Initially, there's a lot of story and characters to set up. There's Leo, an aspiring boxer who is given a terminal brain tumor diagnosis after a knock down in the ring. Monica is a drug-addicted woman who is made to work as a prostitute for gangsters and is haunted by hallucinations of her dead father. There's corrupt cop Otomo and a young yakuza named Kase, who are planning to steal a shipment of drugs from the gang and blame it on their Chinese rivals, plus a wide assortment of gang bosses, cops, hitmen, and underworld heavies.
But it doesn't take long for the various plot strands to come together. When the plan to rip off the gang goes wrong, Leo and Monica find themselves inadvertently thrown together, trying to outrun various parties, while the bungling Otomo and Kase find themselves getting deeper and deeper into trouble. It all takes place over the course of one night in neon-drenched Tokyo, and once the movie takes flight it never stops moving.
In less experienced hands, the relentless pace, mix of genres, and high number of characters might have been confusing and grating. But Miike is a veteran of this sort of thing, and compared to the likes of the Dead or Alive movies, First Love is actually very controlled. While some of those earlier movies were primarily concerned with visceral thrills and outlandish shocks, First Love keeps its two young damaged heroes at the centre. Leo's terminal condition and Monica's addictions draw them together, as they find support for each other and, as a result, feel a determination to stay alive for at least one more night. Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi's heartfelt performances anchor the movie and ensure that the mayhem is balanced by tender emotion.
Nevertheless, let's not forget this is still a Takashi Miike film. Within the first minutes a severed head rolls into view, and from that point all bets are off, as he bombards us with thrilling car chases, frenetic shoot-outs and gore-soaked sword fights. None of it is played remotely seriously, but it's consistently funny, inventive, and exciting. The action is matched by some wonderfully funny supporting performances--in particular Shōta Sometani as the young, idiotic gangster Kase and singer Becky's vengeful, blade wielding Juri, who will stop at nothing to avenge her yakuza lover's murder. It's also worth highlighting Koji Endo's wild score, a bombastic blend of squealing sax, didgeridoo, and pounding drums.
There's little denying that First Love might be too eccentric for some audiences. The blend of genres, the relentless pace, and gory violence is far removed from what we expect from Hollywood films, not to mention the jaw-dropping moment where Miike brazenly swaps what would have been the movie's biggest stunt for an animated version, presumably because the budget wouldn't allow him to do it for real. But for fans of Miike's particular brand of cinematic madness, First Love is a blast of pure kinetic pleasure.
Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2019.