If you’ve ever wondered how True Romance would pan out if it was set in Yakuza territory, then Takeshi Miike’s First Love is the film for you. Miike is known for delivering a special blend of extreme violence and absurdist humour and First Love is as adept at intersecting moments of gore with comedy to tell a devastatingly beautiful love story. Miike’s characters and plotlines are as important to his work as the extreme violence, and First Love offers two romantic leads whose love story is as captivating as the action is exhilarating and bloody.
First Love is a film of two halves; the first lays out many complicated and intriguing plot threads and the second half ties them all off nicely, mostly with extreme and indiscriminate violence. One thing for certain in a Takeshi Miike film is that heads will roll, and one does exactly that within the first few minutes – it’s reassuring to know what you’re going to get from a film straight away. The gore then takes a backseat for a little while as a compelling cast of characters is introduced amongst a complicated and thoroughly intriguing web of circumstances, despite the drug heist gone wrong – this is a love story after all.
Miike’s character crafting is adept and his morally grey characters are some of his best. Julie, the unfortunate Yasu’s (Takahiro Miura) almost un-killable girlfriend, may be a thoroughly unlikable person but she is a great character. She is extremely resourceful and extremely angry with Kase (Shôta Sometani) after his multiple failed assassination attempts against her. Despite her on-screen sins, it is easy to cheer for this avenging angel of rage — she is so angry she doesn’t even have time for pants, only vengeance.
We meet Monica (Sakurako Konishi), an addict working as a prostitute and held captive to pay her father’s debt to the Yakuza after he disappeared, she is suffering from sometimes comical hallucinations as a result of drug withdrawal and childhood trauma. She is thrust into the middle of a treacherous drug heist gone wrong and becomes the target of the Yakuzas, the Chinese gang who are moving in on the Yakuza territory, and a corrupt Japanese police officer. Fortunately for Monica, she is not alone amongst all this deadly chaos.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a young boxer that has just received a terminal diagnosis, with the knowledge of his inevitable demise, Leo is released from his fear of death and possessed with the belief that he can do anything. The desire to see Monica and Leo’s love story end well is, at times, as strong for the characters on-screen as it is for the viewer and as we follow them across one night, their love drives the narrative as much as the missing drugs and promise of violence.
When the violence does come back it comes back in force, the drug dealing and infighting amongst the Yakuzas and rival gangs provide a perfect setup for graphic and stylised slaughter. For Miike, with his prolific back catalogue of Yakuza and Samurai films, making violence look devastatingly attractive comes as easy as breathing. The action is beautifully shot and interspersed with moments of comedy that also come easily to Miike and therefore do not feel forced or out of place. When it comes to portrayals of extreme violence, Miike is obviously going to make it look incredible, he has been doing it for a very long time.
After years and years of increasingly violent action films, what is it that makes First Love stand out? Aside from Miike’s ability to make depraved bloodshed look exciting and beautiful, it is the cast of characters that both carry out this violence and the characters who seek to escape it. Above all it is the purity of the love between Leo and Monica, juxtaposed against the corruptions of drugs and gang violence it is the love story that binds these elements together. The desire to see these two succeed against everything that is trying to destroy them, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or comedic, is the essential driving force for the film. First Love beautifully recalls the messy, breakneck, violent exhilaration of falling in love for the first time; Miike has thrust romance into the spotlight and forces the violence, gore and comedy to take a back seat in order for us to simply enjoy love again.
First Love is in select cinemas, Blu-Ray and DVD on February 14th
by Cat Finn
Cat Finn (she/her) was spawned and raised in Manchester, a Film and Media graduate and current master’s student who is most comfortable behind a screen where it’s warm and dry. Cat is an enthusiastic fan of lots of things but particularly enjoys films and television series’ with superheroes, vampires, ninjas, robots, spaceships, magic and dragons – bonus if they’re all there. Her style icon is Darth Vader but she wants the Bill and Ted future where everyone is excellent to each other and not the Space Reich.