There’s something about first love that can be hard to quantify, even when looking back on it. The simultaneous excitement of being attracted to someone else, the endless internal questions trying to figure out what it means, the unyielding terror as you work out if the other person feels the same. It’s a lot like life or death in that everything you have seems to get caught up in those emotions and nothing else matters. That’s where the latest film from auteur Takashi Miike (Audition) and scribe Masa Nakamura (Dead or Alive 2: Birds) begins its story, with the general sense that from chaos can spring forth something worth living for. Out on home video now is his 103rd film First Love, which utilizes the backdrop of a crime-filled Japanese city to explore how selfishness destroys and a pure heart extends your life.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is an amateur boxer on the rise, but has no one to share his triumphs with. Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is the daughter of a debtor with a slight drug habit and is forced to work as a prostitute to work off his debts. After a series of events that are unconnected to either of them, these two relative innocents find themselves on the run together from both the yakuza and the Chinese mob, only able to rely on each other to get through the night.
We should all hope to be as prolific and creative in our careers as director Takashi Miike. He’s the man behind films such as 1999’s Audition, 2001’s Ichi the Killer, 2010’s 13 Assassins, and, in 2017, his 100th film was the live-action adaptation of manga Blade of the Immortal. Churning out films at a rate of two or three a year, you’d expect some of them to drop in quality or concept, yet Miike’s films are consistently thoughtful and engaging, taking the concepts on the page and making them come alive on screen. Miike’s talent in conjunction with Nakamura’s script makes First Love more than a just another romance, more than just another crime caper. It becomes something that’s strangely life-affirming as it reminds the audience that, perhaps, living your life day-to-day is the least ideal, that living each day with the recognition that it could end as suddenly as it began enables us to rise above the psychological trappings that keep us down. Rather than come at this in any sort of straight manner, Miike and Nakamura opt for darkly comic violence and richly designed characters. This is, of course, a hat tip to Nakamura who wrote the script, and, frankly, it’s a shame that modern audiences are likely going to jump to Tarantino for a comparison. Surface-level, First Love does carry shades of 1993’s True Romance, yet Love shares more in common with the works of crime-writer Elmore Leonard, whose stories tended to focus on the criminal underworld, an innocent or two, and the mangled way their lives intertwine before it all comes together in a hail of gunfire. Take a look at Touch (1987), Freaky Deaky (1988), Get Shorty (1990), and Out of Sight (1996) to get a taste. Like Leonard, Nakamura’s script loses none of the heart and meaning, cheapens not a moment of growth or emotional conflict, as the story winds itself up at the start, unfurling with exponential speed at the close of Act 1.
Nakamura’s script is at once simple and absolutely bonkers: two strangers fall in love while on the run in a situation of mistaken identity (simple) from the yakuza, the mistake coming out of internal turmoil among the yakuza as the Chinese mob makes a play for control over the syndicate via a personal vendetta between returned yakuza boss Gondo (Seiyô Uchino) and One-Armed Wang (Cheng-Kuo Yen) (bonkers). It’s a lot to get through, and the opening act of the film takes some getting used to as characters, setting, and motivation are introduced from a variety of perspectives, but once things are in motion, First Love is an absolute rollercoaster ride of mayhem leading to a hilariously bloody showdown. If you’ve experienced any of Miike’s films before, especially ones dealing with crime culture, you know to expect a certain amount of violence, and First Love delivers on the goods in a variety of increasingly surprising and darkly entertaining ways that toe the line of the macabre without becoming grotesque. None of the violence, by the way, would feel as satisfying to see inflicted if not for the time taken at the start to set the players before putting them into motion. Most refreshing is that the romance isn’t played as lustful or shallow; rather, Nakamura’s script plays it as something more substantive, even if adolescent, while also ensuring that Leo and Monica are believable as broken people looking for a reason to keep going beyond the next punch or hit. They are complex, consisting of countless faults, yet they don’t judge each other. Nakamura sets the stage for a love unbound by previous affection, so nothing Leo or Monica do is graded against anything but the situation they find themselves in and a need to rely on each other.
None of it works though if not brought to life by a cast more than capable of doing whatever the scene calls for without seeming out of place in the overall context of the story. Kubota’s Leo doesn’t tie the story together as you’d expect, but even as a bystander, the character is not insignificant and goes on a particularly trying emotional arc. Kubota makes each aspect of Leo believable from the physicality required as an amateur boxer to the sensitivity of another lost soul. Especially in the climax of the film, Kubota’s performance reveals Leo as the heart of First Love, making Leo come alive in a bold declaration of existence that as much cuts to the concept of the film as a love story as it does Leo’s personal journey. Konishi is given less to do in the overall film as her character is beaten to the point of near-constant supplication by the time Monica and Leo cross paths; however, Konishi imbues Monica with an element of sincerity so that Monica’s lack of sophistication doesn’t come across as foolish or dense. This is particularly important as Monica’s past trauma literally follows her in the form of hallucinations which Leo attempts to help her through. Because what does a film need when it’s already jam-packed with murderous and treacherous killers? An evocative exploration of familial abuse which allows Monica to come out of the story with a semblance of agency. With Kubota and Konishi handling the poignant aspects of the narrative, the rest of the cast gets to let loose, giving some of the more outlandishly comical moments to Shota Sometani’s Kase, a wonderful bit of ultraviolent ferocity from Becky’s Julie, and a near-perfect cinematic send-off with Uchino’s mostly sidelined Gondo.
Romance comedies are so often given freedom with the rules of logic that it seems absolutely fair to allow the same freedom to First Love. With the central concept being a love story, literally any and everything is possible, and the sooner you accept it, the more fun you’ll have, even at the film’s most absurd. In fact, by buying in early, you’ll find yourself rooting for the film to get even crazier before the credits appear. Though the film is a little hard to follow at first as it establishes itself and the actual ending of the film wanders a bit before completing, the bulk of First Love is an undeniable blast. Truly, First Love oscillates between amazing and absurd, but if you’re in for a penny on the love story, then you’re in for a pound on everything else.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital beginning February 11th, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.