Takashi Miike‘s 88th feature film is among the most consistently raucous, creative, and entertaining of his career. Let me repeat that for the back row. 59-year-old Miike’s 88th movie as director is a more energetic, imaginative, and thrilling film than most younger filmmakers will even dream of crafting. He’s slowed down to just one movie per year — at his peak he was knocking out four annually — and while they’re not always winners, when he’s on… he’s on fire. And First Love is Miike once again at the top of his game.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a boxer on the rise, but when a seemingly innocuous blow lands him in the hospital diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor the young man grows understandably morose. He wanders out into the city streets and bumps into a damsel in distress named Monica (Sakurako Konishi). Forced into sex work to pay off her father’s debt, a cruel father whose underwear-clad “ghost” still haunts her days and night, she’s become a pawn in an unintended crime spree involving drugs, murder, Yakuza gangsters, a dirty cop, and more. Facing a medical death sentence and having decided to spend his final days helping those in need, Leo steps up to protect Monica from all that threatens her, and soon the city’s streets are running red with blood, chaos, and more blood.
Miike’s filmography is all over the map in both content and quality, and he’s dabbled more than once in nearly every genre. His heart, though, belongs to the morally muddled world of those drawn or forced towards violence. Some enjoy the carnage while others are are simply defending themselves, but in Miike’s world brutality is as common and expected as breathing itself. First Love throws two innocents into the fray against Japanese Yakuza, Chinese Triad, and the police, and across its 108 minutes Miike succeeds in delivering thrills, laughs, and a budding romance. More than that, he makes you care about everyone.
That’s the balance at play here as Miike introduces his various characters on all sides before shifting the narrative into overdrive across one wildly violent night. Not everyone will be left standing by dawn — most won’t — but the film is endeared to all of them. Leo and Monica are the core, obviously, and we can’t help but empathize with their situations while also conceding it’s what ultimately brought them together. They need each other, and we need them to make it through the madness.
The “bad guys” are every bit as unforgettable, though, as Miike and writer Masa Nakamura infuse each of them with personality and their own memorable beats. Kase (Shôta Sometani) sits at the center of it as a mid-level Yakuza looking for a shortcut to success. It’s his attempted robbery plan that sets everything in motion, and while the young couple remains the focus Kase’s own journey is one of Coen brothers proportions as his every effort devolves into chaos and misfortune. Others enter the fray, from a corrupt cop in way over his head to a gangster’s moll whose thirst for vengeance turns her into an unstoppable Terminator-like killing machine. There’s even mention of someone named One-Armed Wang, and if you think there’s a chance he won’t show up for some revenge of his own before the credits roll then you are sorely mistaken.
The violence is frequent, bloody, and stylish as hell, and Miike captures it all with energy and endless wit. Gun battles, brawls, sword fights and more fill the screen and delight genre fans with orchestrated chaos. Downtime delivers sharp dialogue, engaging character beats, and a careful balance between laughs and the haunting trauma brought to vivid life through Monica’s visions of her father. The action beats feel heightened in their ridiculous natures at times, but they remain graphic and tangible sequences — although Miike literally shifts into animation for a big car stunt that his budget most certainly wouldn’t allow — as the characters chip away at each in often wince-inducing fashion.
There’s absolutely nothing fresh in the basic setup of a young man falling for a nice hooker and helping her escape the lifestyle through violence, but Miike enlivens it all by respecting the heart at its core and lifting it through delirious action, blackly comic beats, and a clear affection for all of the souls caught up in the madness. First Love is a blast of Miike brilliance in the form of absolutely entertaining genre fare, and it shares some welcome traits with his 2017 gem Blade of the Immortal. His characters breathe because his love for them gives them life. Don’t be surprised if you fall in love with both Miike and his latest film by the time it ends.