You never forget your first Miike. It happened to me when I first started hearing about his head-trip horror called AUDITION. Released in 1999, the same year as M. Night Shyamalan’s “big twist,” Takashi Miike’s reveal was less of a gotcha and more of a WTF? moment. Yet, my history with Miike’s oeuvre is quite limited. Though what I have gleaned from friends and acquaintances over the years is that some of his films you will love and some you will hate.
Not a great lead-in to talk about his latest, FIRST LOVE. The title sounds so generic that it could be a romantic comedy. There’s romance, but it comes at the expense of warring personal interests. If you are in the mood for a goofy movie, then this will definitely be your jam. Let’s meet the players. First there’s Leo (Masataka Kubota), a young boxer that shows a lot of promise in the ring. Until he gets his bell rung and collapses to the mat. The punch that made him loopy leads to an MRI where a brain tumor is detected. Then there’s Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a different kind of loopy. She’s a drug-addicted call girl who, when she isn’t high, sees hallucinations of her abusive father – naked, except for his tidy whities. Some imbecilic yakuza, Kase (Shôta Sometani), who is going behind his gang to score and sell a shipment of drugs. Let’s just say his plans were not of the best-laid variety.
A chance encounter finds the boxer with a death sentence and a strung-out damsel running through the streets of Tokyo, while avoiding Kase and a corrupt cop he’s in cahoots with, a one-armed Chinese gangster, and a kick-ass femme fatale that could make John Wick go “Whoa.” With nothing to lose Leo pulls Monica along to try and stay one step ahead of their pursuers, forgetting his own interests to ensure her safety.
The movie has so many side characters and sub stories that it is easy to get lost in the commotion. Miike throws a lot at you after a soft opening. Once a decapitated head rolls into the street the movie becomes a full-tilt boogie of comic book violence, fast edits, and narrative threads dangling every which way.
FIRST LOVE is hard-boiled from the get go, only it isn’t pulp we’re biting into – it’s a piece of taffy that softens, much like the story. Fun and violent, and hilarious, with a little heart once you learn more about Leo and Monica. Where the movie is at its most sublime is when we move away from the meet-cute and watch the supporting characters going through their own problems. The standout is Kase and his incompetence, but a close second is Julie (Becky Rabone), who is out for revenge after Kase killed her boyfriend and made off with some heroin. Her ferocity in looking for answers keeps escalating to the point of furious vengeance. The blade she wields just makes her that much more of a bad-ass femme fatale.
Still, it’s hard to watch FIRST LOVE and not think about TRUE ROMANCE, starring Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette. Leo and Monica are pretty much Clarence Worley and Alabama, if Leo worked in a comic book shop and watched Sonny Chiba movies on his birthday. Together they encounter squirrelly hoods who want what they think she stole: a small duffle containing 10 bags of heroin. Granted, no one would mistake Takashi Miike’s energetic direction to Tony Scott’s, particularly the explosive climax inside a deserted warehouse. The scene is like a strange mix of having the starting lineup of Coen brothers’ acting regulars and Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE, under the madcap direction of Takashi Miike.
If you have never experienced a Miike movie, this one is a fun way to start. Just enough to make you tipsy before you decide to chase down Sake with a can of Red Bull.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!