Receiving a cancer diagnosis, becoming wrapped up in a drug war, and meeting someone who is haunted by the past; this is how ill-fated boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) starts his night, and it only gets crazier from there.
Welcome to the world of First Love, the 104th film from Japanese genre legend Takashi Miike. With ludicrous characters, ridiculous situations, and gallons of blood and decapitations, First Love is an exciting ride through insanity and one of the best films of this year’s TIFF.
First Love tells the story of Leo, a boxer who recently learned the dire news of his inoperable cancer. Depressed and having given up all hope on life, he wanders into the streets of Tokyo, only to meet up with Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young woman haunted by drug abuse and the sins of her past. Now, caught in the middle of a drug war started by the bumbling antics of Kase (Shota Sometani), things go from bad to worse quickly. The Yakuza, the Triads, and the group working with Kase are now all tracking Leo and Monica, and things go downhill at a frantic pace.
Walking into First Love and it is hard to know where the movie will go. Miike weaves an intricate web of characters and situations that will keep you guessing and on your toes the whole way through. Despite the lunacy of everything unfolding, there is a sense of time and place to the proceedings. You are quickly made to understand how everyone in this world works and grow to care about their horrible lives, even if they will be snuffed out at a moment’s notice.
First Love evokes the tone of a heist gone wrong, with each new interaction further from the goal that seemed just within reach. Yet Miike mixes the formula up for this movie. Yes, it shares many of the same tropes we have come to expect from the genre (think Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels), but the moral centre of Leo and Monica gives the audience something to root for. What could have been a nihilistic mess turns into something relatively touching, if not far more ridiculous than you could even imagine.
Stylistically, First Love captures the seedy underbelly of Japan in a way that is as comedic as it is dark. From decapitations to gunfights, Miike is not afraid to spill a little blood to tell his story. As the characters embrace the chaos on screen, things go from the rational to the truly ridiculous, taking the audience on a wild ride that will go down in cinema history as one of the most exciting final fights captured on film. Between the random gangsters and the main players, it is obvious that everyone involved was having a blast as they let the mayhem wash over them.
Even where the budget may have been a concern, Miike finds a way to exceed all expectations, delivering one of the most amazing end set pieces I have seen in a film this year. I will refrain from spoiling anything since the discovery is part of the enjoyment, but I have to say what he managed to do was nothing short of magical. It cements the tone and shows just how off the rails the story has gone, with still more to come.
The soundtrack, audio, and editing all work to capture the frantic energy of First Love. From the minute the movie starts to when the end credits roll, Miike manages to capture a magnetic feel throughout that keeps the audience engaged and on the edge of their seat. Each song on the soundtrack exemplifies the mood of a scene, shifting from serious conversation to out of the blue dances at the drop of a hat. Combine that with an editing style that knows when to linger on a scene and when to ramp the action up to 11, and you have a landmark in action cinema.
Walking into First Love it is hard to anticipate just how funny this movie really is. The way the dialogue and the scenes play out ensure you will be laughing at the pure absurdity of everything on the screen if you are not in shock from the visceral violence on display. Miike knows how to exceed expectations, and in First Love, he does it in every way possible.
First Love is a product of its parts. The acting and the soundtrack both work to paint a ridiculous picture that must be experienced to be understood. If you have seen any of Miike’s past films then you might have an idea how off-the-wall things may get, but even with that knowledge, little can prepare you for where this film decides to go. It is a brilliant work of crime drama, and one of Miike’s best films to date. If you love hilarious crime thrillers, do yourself a favour and give First Love a watch.