Director: Takashi Miike
Stars: Becky, Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi
During most trips to the cinema you won’t find yourself watching gut-shot Yakuza henchmen having dust from blown-open cocaine baggies snorted off of their rising hard-ons on the backseat of a speeding car, but then, most trips to the cinema in the UK aren’t to see Takashi Miike films.
More’s the pity you might sigh as you exit into the light after seeing his latest salvo, First Love; his one hundred and something’th flick in a career marked by boundary-pushing excess and delirious explosions of violence. The work that has made it to UK shores, at least, is typified and marketed for this unhinged quality. One expects a no-holds-barred experience with Miike. And one usually gets it.
His is a brand of cinema that transcends notions of reality, something which First Love seems to wryly acknowledge during it’s closing act. Following an extended nighttime bloodbath in a sporting goods store, two of Miike’s scant survivors stagger out into the morning light only to cross paths with a domestic couple known to one of them. An old high-school acquaintance, it seems. She’s pregnant; he’s amiable. They’re normal people met by chance, who might’ve come out of a Kore-Eda movie, even. Our duo make pleasant small talk and stagger off again in the opposite direction.
An innocuous scene, but one which seems to find Miike smiling that, yes, ordinary folk are out there having their low-key dramas, experiencing the day-to-day poetry of life… but his films are destined to follow another path. If they intersect with reality, it’s only by happenstance, and normal anarchic service will be resumed shortly.
Carnage is on offer in First Love, but it takes a little while to get going, even if one of the first things you see is a severed head rolling out of a side street.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a fledgling boxer and orphan who finds himself mixed-up in the tussles of gang warfare between the Japanese Yakuza and a group of Chinese drug dealers. Key to all of this, is a drug-addled young prostitute named ‘Monica’ (Sakurako Konishi). Leo – who has been told he has a large and inoperable brain tumor – takes it upon himself to stand up for the dazed young woman, troubled as she is by visions of a dancing old man in a trench coat and tighty-whities. Standing bravely for what’s right in the face of his impending mortality, Leo (and Monica) soon find a variety of cops, assassins and crazy ex-girlfriends on their tail… all culminating in that fateful night at the sporting goods store.
The aforementioned Yakuza lackey who ends up gutshot in the back of a speeding car is Kase (Shôta Sometani), a pretty-boy henchman whose girlfriend Julie (Becky) bares a significant grudge against him. She growls through the movie, inciting violence in the mob bosses as she drags a crowbar behind her on a zombie-like beeline toward vengeance. Gender doesn’t have a say in who is to be feared in First Love; all-comers seem to be driven by their own power, be it honorable or downright psychotic.
This is the heightened, mythic world of genre movies that Miike is celebrating here. Though he does it with far less ego, one might compare this part of his sensibility to that of Quentin Tarantino, whose work often similarly champions the power of the myth or the archetype. Miike’s characters are mostly silly, sketched with simplicity and adhering to recognisable models. Setting them against one another, one senses him chuckling from the director’s chair. In truth, First Love never strays too far from the template of any number of direct-to-video Yakuza pictures one might’ve unearthed in the 1990s, but that’s really sort of the point. Miike came up in this world. It was his bread and butter for years. It’s part of how his filmography came to feature so many titles. First Love looks back fondly at this material the same way that Django Unchained gazes lovingly at the Spaghetti Western.
It makes that small, unnecessary moment toward the end of the movie seem all the sweeter. Miike powers up several times through the cartoonish section of the film – from an apartment explosion ignited by a toy puppy to a getaway sequence that sees the film transform, briefly, into full-blown animation (Miike’s taking the piss out of Hollywood’s CGI love-affair?) – his survivors limp out into the real world and the real world looks at them and blinks. What happened?
Nothing that the real world can find a use for.
First Love is about the escapism of violent genre cinema, a joy that is here freed from questions of responsibility or greater impact. Leo also represent this feeling. Deeming his life over already, he is unburdened from reality and allowed to vie with larger-than-life characters in a bullet-laden, sword-swinging confrontation. Because if reality is over, why not have the courage to transcend it and join in the fun?
The movie is wholly unnecessary and you’ll forget half of it within a week, but in the moment? That’s the sweet spot.