Takashi Miike’s First Love is not the movie one might expect from a director better known, it could be argued, for some fairly messed up films. Look at Ichi the Killer, or the infamous Audition, but then as with George Miller who went from Mad Max to Babe, he’s also dipped his toes into other genres with work like Ultraman Max and Terra Formars so perhaps it really isn’t so surprising that he’s come out with a movie that feels a lot like a traditional gangster film for most of its runtime. In fact the film it’s most reminiscent of is Tarantino/Tony Scott’s True Romance.
First Love follows the story of boxer Leo, whose career is in doubt following a sudden unexplained collapse during a match, and call girl/drug addict Yuri/Monica, sold into slavery by her father to try and pay off his debts to some unsavoury yakuza types. Both characters arrive with a shedload of emotional baggage, with Leo having been abandoned as a child, and Monica haunted by nightmares and hallucinations of her father dressed in nothing but his glasses and some white Y-fronts which is both funny and haunting in equal measure.
They find themselves drawn into a plan hatched by ambitious mobster Kase and corrupt cop Otomo to steal a shipment of drugs from the Yakuza. Everything very quickly goes wrong, the bodies start to pile up and poor Leo and Monica are the focus of not only the Yakuza, but the Chinese Triads as well. Everything eventually culminates in a mass brawl that will still leave people who came here expecting Ichi levels of violence… disappointed. This is a surprisingly restrained effort from Miike and while it teases the carnage that does eventually show up with a decapitated head early on, viewers will need to be patient and allow things to unfold in their own good time.
For a film all about a boxer and how life and love are things to be fought for and championed, there’s surprisingly little punch to the storyline, with a lot of the events veering more towards the slapstick even when people are being shot and/or maimed. If that’s what you’re into, then this is probably a film that will give you a lot to like, but if you prefer things somewhat more serious then this isn’t going to be for you. There’s even a scene that suddenly shifts to being animated, then promptly cuts back to live action again. Stylistically it’s certainly interesting but the more cynically-minded might infer that it was to get around budget restrictions for that particular stunt.
First Love is a difficult film to classify. Part slapstick, part gangster movie, part chase movie, part comedy. While it wasn’t my particular cup of tea, it does show that Miike hasn’t lost his drive or his talent after over 100 different movies. The ending is likely to be the most divisive part of the film among audiences and while we wouldn’t think of spoiling it, it’s… odd. Jarring in its simplicity given all that’s happened up to this point.
Does it work? We’ll leave that up to you to decide. It won’t please everyone, but First Love is still worth a look.