As you might anticipate, First Love is a story of boy meets girl, but coming from Takashi Miike, the visionary director behind Ichi the Killer, Audition, and 13 Assasins, you might rightly anticipate this romantic-comedy is less flowers and kisses and more yakuzas and blood. There is also a high-kicking revenge killer, a grimacing ghost in tightie-whities, and a pair of gruesome yet pretty damn funny decapitations.
Written by Masa Nakamura, First Love centers on a pair of unlikely lovers. Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a stoic boxer who feels numb to his victories and losses, until he’s diagonosed with a deadly brain tumor. Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is a drug-addicted sex worker haunted by the ghost of her abusive father. But one day in the back alleys of Tokyo, they have a life-changing meet-cute when Leo punches out a corrupt cop. But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself…
While Leo is coming to grips with his deadly diagnosis, and Monica spends her days sprawled in a daze on the floor of her merciless pimp’s pad, a complicated drug heist is brewing. An arrogant yakuza (Shôta Sometani), whose ambitions outstretch his abilities, schemes to steal a stash of drugs kept at the aforementioned pimp’s place. So he calls in a crooked cop pal to lure Monica away and frame her for the crime. But Leo’s fist smashes their best-laid plans. And that’s just the beginning. What follows is a comedy of errors where into the funky, funny fray jump an array of very violent and comically volatile criminals, including a sword-weilding gangster, a shotgun-toting one-armed hitman, a smirking femme fatale, and a firecracker of a moll (the wild force of nature, Becky), who will go to any lengths to see her recently slaughtered beau avenged. These characters get little dimension. With their electric intensity, distinctive costumes, and eccentric fighting styles, they feel plucked from a video game. But that works for First Love, where each fight sequence feels leveled up from the last, and winning is not just about surviving the night but also rescuing its dragon-guarded princess from her tower. Or in Miike’s case, it means rescuing the pimp-guarded sex trafficking victim from the grips of the yakuza.
Miike places the players on the board, then unleashes them on a collision course of car chases, gunfights, and absolutely bonkers bursts of violence that had the Fantastic Fest audience laughing and cheering. For all its dark content, First Love is fueled by a manic whimsy that urges us to laugh as a menacing spirit is compelled by the power of pop music or a cocky crook gets a head-spinning comeuppance. Then at its center is a restrained tenderness, displayed in the deeply sweet romance that grows between two innocents who found love in a hopeless place. While characters colorful and chaotic whirl around them in a ferocious dance of death and maimings, Kubota and Konishi exude an almost childish warmth, whether exchanging a swooning glance, knocking out baddies or begging for a hit of hard drugs. Their performances are less woolly and wild, but that perfectly poises them for Miike’s ending, which is shockingly heartwarming after so much murder.
First Love is a celebration of the purity of romance set in a deeply unpure world. Here kindess is suspect. Backstabbers are everywhere. And a sword swing in the street could lead to a severed head rolling along with a bemused smirk. Yet in this place of grit, grime, and crime, love blossomed, like a flower out of a sidewalk crack. Miike gives his fans the kind of jaw-dropping brutality and bonkers spectacle they’ve come to antipicate, and appreciate, from this prolific Japanese filmmaker. Yet on top of all of this gooey, gruesome fun, he also gives us hope.
First Love made its US Premiere at Fantastic Fest. It hits theaters on September 27th.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com