VOD film review: First Love
Josh Slater-Williams | On 16, Feb 2020
Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Shôta Sometani, Nao Ohmori
Watch First Love online in the UK: All 4 / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Fuck. How many does this make today?” an exasperated, backstabbing yakuza says to himself, as he attempts to tie up yet another loose end in the fallout of a scheme gone disastrously wrong. He has no idea that the previous loose end he thought he tied up – i.e. someone he left for dead – is very much still alive, kicking and maniacally set on revenge. Welcome to Takashi Miike’s First Love, the Japanese icon’s 103rd film to date: a high-energy slice of pulp fiction with a dozen distinctive characters.
It even recalls Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in a way, with its tale of a boxer caught up in a world of gangsters. How that boxer ends up fighting the gangsters resembles the Coen brothers. Leo (Masataka Kubota) is an up-and-coming young fighter who’s just been given a likely fatal brain tumour diagnosis. Abandoned in the street as a baby, loner Leo believes he truly has nothing to live for. Meanwhile, there’s a turf war between Japanese and Chinese drug dealers. A cocksure young yakuza enforcer, Kase (Shôta Sometani), sees eventual doom for all parties involved and their way of life. He concocts a plan to steal a particular lucrative shipment, frame the theft on a young woman named Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), actually give the shipment to a corrupt drug-selling detective (Nao Ohmori) whom he’s partnered, and, with the detective’s influence, wait in jail for two to three years for an unrelated small crime, while the Japanese and Chinese rivals destroy each other.
Yuri, also known as “Monica”, is a haunted innocent who’s been drugged and forced to work off (via prostitution) the debts of her abusive father, whom she hallucinates stalking her in his underpants like an outtake from It Follows. During Kase’s plan, wherein Yuri is briefly escorted through a busy street by the corrupt cop, she experiences another one of these episodes and flees. As the detective pursues her, he’s knocked out by a punch from passer-by Leo, emboldened by some sense of purpose in the face of his apparent, imminent death. He becomes Yuri’s protector, but this punch has a domino effect that leads to both Japanese and Chinese enforcers pursuing them. It’s not all his fault, though, as Kase’s faith in his own abilities to pull off his part of the plan proves spectacularly misguided in its own way.
If this sounds at all complicated, rest assured that First Love is only very fleetingly difficult to follow. Miike, pairing once more with screenwriter Masayoshi Nakamura, devotes much of the first half hour to exposition, though still told with all his usual fun and visual flair – see the introduction of the yakuza element of the plot with a cut from a boxing blow to a decapitated head rolling in the street. Once all the wheels are set in motion, all bets are off and the pacing is breakneck all the way until maybe the last ten minutes. But up to that point First Love reaches a sustained pitch of action-comedy madness that’s infectiously enjoyable. It’s a bloody live-action cartoon that proves one of contemporary cinema’s most prolific filmmakers still has plenty of surprises up his sleeve.
First Love is available on All 4 until 3rd January 2022.