How do you sum up a film like First Love? Well imagine Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance or Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire but on steroids. Imagine a John Wick level of violence that’s utterly unapologetic with plenty of Yakuza style dark humour. Imagine the Shakespearian undertones of ‘star-crossed lovers’, caught in the middle of a drug war between rival gangs as they survive one eventful and manic night. Yep, Takashi Miike is back, and his latest bombastic of a film is crazier than ever!
As London Film Festival began to wind down for another year, somehow First Love became the perfect antidote for the overwhelming sensation of festival fatigue. Injecting a much-needed ‘second wind’, you can never accuse it of being boring or ponderously slow. This is the type of film that would give you a no-nonsense whiplash through the sheer entertainment alone.
But if you have never seen a Takashi Miike film before, then Miike suitably sets the mood, acting as a taster for his notable trademarks that have spanned 103 films, a multitude of genres and a panache for delivering various artistic styles. In contrast, First Love may feel like a tonal step down in comparison to his previous renowned works such as Ichi the Killer, 13 Assassins and of course Audition. But one thing you can never accuse him of is resting on his laurels, and arguably First Love is his most accessible film to date.
And speaking of ‘taster’, nothing quite sets the mood than seeing a decapitated head for its opening shot! If anything, that is just the beginning of the madness that follows.
There’s a lot to unpack within a film that has an endless amount of double-crossings, hilarious backfired shenanigans, and an insane amount of cartoonish slapstick and violence in its delivery and execution. Its rapid-fire pace of a plot frequently acknowledges how outlandish and absurd it is. Takashi Miike at this point doesn’t care because of his assured confidence with the material throughout. To quote Dirty Dancing, he’s having the time of his life.
First Love is predominantly driven by its stereotypical characters in a classic yet unconventional story of boy meets girl and girl meets boy; Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a boxer who has nothing to lose after being diagnosed with a brain tumour and Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is a prostitute haunted by nightmarish visions of her abuser father. And when Monica is used as a pawn in a not-so-elaborate drug war game, then add to the mix of a vengeful, manic lover aka the female incarnate of the T-1000 (a superb performance by Becky) who somehow (albeit comically) escapes death numerous times, a dirty, corrupt cop, a wannabe head-honcho Yakuza member hoping to take his monetary cut by inciting the drug war, and a one-armed mobster with a shotgun. Why is there a one-armed mobster with a shotgun? Who knows. Who cares. He’s there, unleashed onto the world like a final boss fight in Streets of Rage because substance and depth are the unfortunate casualties. First Love operates as an over the top throwback to the 90s era of filmmaking. There’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but those stereotypical tropes are the only tangible thing it holds onto.
For a film that seems to be a cornerstone homage to Miike’s previous work and filmmaking as a whole, the coherence (if you were looking for that) does find its way in spending time with Leo and Monica. However unconventional the meet-cute is, the traditional adages of life unfulfilled, honour and second chances ring true with Leo enforcing himself into the situation as Monica’s ‘damsel in distress’ protector. However crazy the plot gets or different their backgrounds are, somehow they are the only sane ones, or at least carry some sense of idolised morality.
Where it begins to earn its delirious reputation is in its third act where predictably its escalating convergence comes together, and all hell breaks loose. Not only does Miike outdoes himself with its gory violence, but in a moment of mix-media entertainment (where I can only assume it was a tongue-in-cheek symbol of having no budget left to film it), even a Thelma and Louise style movie car jump can be turned into a Manga anime.
Does it struggle to maintain all of its ideas? Perhaps. Its slow, exposition of a start does take a while to settle before it eventually moves into the chaos. But like all Takashi Miike films, you know what to expect, and then again you don’t! That is the beauty behind First Love’s appealing and energetic quandary. At a breezy 108 mins, It doesn’t make any excuses for what it is; it’s just ballsy enough to execute it, and I loved every God-damn minute of it.
The only sad consolation is that UK audiences have to wait until 14th February 2020 to see it. But as Takashi Miike would probably denote from his brilliant, mad-cap adventure, who said romance was dead?
FIRST LOVE screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2019. Out in UK cinemas 14th February 2020.