FIRST LOVE / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: TAKASHI MIIKE / SCREENPLAY: MASA NAKAMURA / STARRING: BECKY, SAKURAKO KONISHI, MASATAKA KUBOTA / RELEASE DATE: 14TH FEBRUARY
A dispassionate boxer with a brain tumor and an enslaved sex worker with a drug addiction meet cute when she winds up on the run from her Yakuza bosses. Canny audiences will know better than to expect the romance of the century from Audition director Takashi Miike, but First Love finds the cult favourite in a surprisingly tender, playful mood. Miike’s 103rd feature is one of his sweetest and most charming yet. Takashi Miike being Takashi Miike, however, the film still opens with a brutal decapitation and spirals out into a world of gore and mayhem from there.
Drawing from a large ensemble cast, this darkly funny romantic gangster thriller (!) is a cross between Pulp Fiction and indie romcom, its farcical plot spinning out from a junior Yakuza soldier’s attempt to rip off his bosses and kickstart a gang war. Everything falls apart when boxer Leo meets sex worker Monica, scuppering the best laid plans of Yakuza and dirty cop. Pursued by assassins, gangsters and the Chinese Triads, Leo and Monica face a long, dark night on the unforgiving streets of Tokyo. But all other threats pale in comparison to the vengeful Julie (Japanese TV star Becky), a crowbar-wielding, saucer-eyed monster violently mourning her pimp lover. Together, Miike, Becky and screenwriter Masa Nakamura have created a villain to rival Ichi the Killer’s Kakihara or Audition’s Asami. If poor Monica makes for a disappointingly passive, wet-blanket heroine, the snarling Julie more than balances the scales.
All of these elements and more come together to create one of the director’s wildest, most exciting movies yet. It’s also very funny, with hilarious performances from its villains and employing over the top slapstick violence throughout. First Love is an accessible, snappy little thriller that takes in many a Takashi Miike trope but in new and amusing ways. It may lack the transgressive bite that many expect from a Takashi Miike picture, but this is – even by the standards of a filmography which stretches into the hundreds – one of his most fun to date.
With all these decapitations and lopping off of limbs, few could accuse Miike of softening in his old age, but First Love definitely finds the director at his most mellow. Bless.