“First Love” (2019) exemplifies Takashi Miike’s 2010 filmmaking in its evolution of a genre and style that made the director’s name.
At once propulsive and ruminative, First Love finds Takashi Miike looking back on his career while generating a steadily escalating sense of suspense. The film’s streamlined quality confirms what a focused filmmaker Miike has become over the 2010s: though it contains about a dozen major characters and several important conflicts, the director moves between them fluidly. He also exudes such intense energy while doing so that First Love generally recalls the freewheeling films Miike made in his late 90s/early 00s heyday. The director underscores this link with the past with plenty of gleefully outré content, such as multiple beheadings (all of them presented comically) and a progression of events that culminates with a harried sex worker frenziedly snorting heroin off a Yakuza’s crotch. Miike had already reflected on his legacy with Yakuza Apocalypse (2015), but that film felt like the director was rehashing past glories (specifically those of the Dead or Alive trilogy, Ichi the Killer, and The Happiness of the Katakuris). First Love, on the other hand, feels energized, as though Miike were reminding himself why he fell in love with cinema to begin with. The film also possesses a recognizable moral foundation that was largely absent from Miike’s first period—the ethical vision he’s honed since 13 Assassins (2010) remains evident throughout.
Miike is slow to reveal his vision, however. What emerges most strongly from the opening passages of First Love is the director’s unabashed enthusiasm for pulp filmmaking. The movie begins with a quick series of shots introducing a boxer named Leo (Masataka Kuobota) as he trains for a meet, then encounters his opponent in the ring; the montage culminates with Leo knocking the opponent’s head off his body and out of the building where their bout is being held. With impish glee reminiscent of his early work, Miike follows one decapitation with another, cutting (pun intended) to a gangster slicing off the head of a Filipino drug dealer with a sword. A policeman arrives at the scene a few shots later to declare that the smell of gang war is in the air. Miike follows up this declaration with a shot recognizable from many crime movies, that of an aging crime boss leaving jail to be greeted by henchmen waiting with a car.
With that image, we get three familiar crime movie set-ups in about five minutes; we’ll get two more before the title card appears. In the next introduction, Miike presents a waif-like sex worker named Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who lives in desperate dependence on her pimp, Yasu, and his girlfriend, Julie, because they feed her heroin addiction. Lastly, we get to know a crooked cop named Otomo (Nao Ohmori) who’s plotting with a greedy Yakuza named Kase (Shota Sometani) to steal a briefcase full of heroin from Kase’s organization. They plan is to kill Yasu (a fairly high-ranking Yakuza), make it look like the Chinese mafia was responsible, then disappear as a gang war erupts across Tokyo. You can sense the director’s giddiness in layering one premise on top of another, especially when you remember how relatively straightforward many of his 2010s movies have been; the accumulation of detail is arguably more exciting than any of the narrative strands individually.
Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura bestow sympathy on just two of the characters, Leo and Monica, and this telegraphs that these two will wind up together. At first, Monica seems like the more vulnerable character, but that changes after a lightweight punch causes Leo to pass out in the ring. Leo visits a doctor, undergoes a CAT scan, then learns he has an inoperable brain tumor that will cause him to die within the next few months. That evening, the young boxer visits a palm reader in a marketplace in the hope of getting a second opinion about his fate. The palmist tells Leo he’s got plenty of time to live; confused, Leo starts walking home when he bumps into Monica, who’s managed to run away from her captors. She’s also withdrawing from heroin, which causes her to hallucinate she’s being pursued by a ghost dressed in just his underwear. In reality, she’s being chased by Otomo, whose plan is contingent on keeping her in his custody. Leo, thinking that Otomo is trying to attack an innocent stranger, knocks out the cop, and runs off with Monica. Miike renders this narrative development more compelling by situating it in counterpoint to the other plot lines, such as the murder of Monica’s pimp, the pimp’s girlfriend’s discovery of his death and her subsequent call for revenge on whoever did it, and the beginnings of the Chinese-Japanese gang war that breaks out according to schedule.
I needed a couple viewings to parse all of this—the developments spin out so wildly that, on my first go round, I was content to accept the chaos and go with the flow. It helps that there’s a discernible direction to the flow; Miike makes you root for Leo and Monica and hope that they survive the subsequent events. The growing connection between these characters, which becomes more pronounced as their lives become increasingly imperiled, provides the movie with a moral center, the proverbial eye of the storm. Leo assumes the role of Monica’s protector because he has nothing to lose; also, something certainly appeals to him about saving someone else’s life when he can’t save his own. Later in First Love, the filmmakers upend the protector-protected dynamic when Leo gets a voice message from his doctor saying he got the wrong CAT scan results and Leo is in fact perfectly healthy. Monica (who confides in Leo that her real name is Yuri) then gives Leo the chance to extricate himself from the gang war that’s started around her. Leo stays with her anyway, confirming their newfound, mutual ability to trust others. It’s this bond to which the film’s title refers.
Then again, First Love contains so much bravura technique that the title may also refer to Miike’s longstanding passion for making movies. The film contains some remarkable set piece every several minutes; my favorites include Kase’s Rube Goldberg-style plan to burn down Julie’s apartment and the final showdown between the feuding crime organizations, which takes place in a closed department store and finds the various players raiding the hardware section for weapons. The set pieces tend to be flashily edited, showcasing Miike’s ability to move a story forward through montage, while the passages of character development tend to unfold in the sort of longer, static, off-center takes that Miike frequently employed in the first two decades of his career. These shots, as usual, convey a cockeyed curiosity about the world; so, too, do the unexpectedly poetic moments that crop up, as they do in most of Miike’s best work. Consider the scene in which Yuri finally comes upon all the heroin she could ever desire, but must dispose of it because she’s being chased by the police. At a Yakuza’s bequest, she pours the heroin out of a speeding car, creating a snow-like mist behind her. Then there’s a moment that occurs near the end of the movie where Leo and Yuri, their chaotic night finally behind them, bump into someone she used to know in high school. Miike lingers on the scene so you feel Yuri assessing how her life has gone and considering how she may have done things differently. The sudden shift to a contemplative register conveys the director’s strong command over tone.
That shift comprises one of those classic Miike moments that remind us that anything is possible in the movies. But what makes it distinctive is how Miike couples this sense of possibility with moral deliberation. It’s as though the director, feeling responsible for his characters, had to address how they evolve after the wild events of the story. The final passages of the film, however brief, show Leo and Yuri working their way to better lives. Following a short scene of the heroes visiting a public beach to use the showers to wash blood off their clothes (an oddly tender moment), Miike presents a montage that cuts between scenes of Leo resuming his training at a boxing gym and Yuri detoxing at his apartment. The montage concludes with Leo winning his latest bout; Miike then cuts to an overhead shot of Leo and Yuri standing outside his building as snow begins to fall, an image conveys a small sense of hope for the future. Miike has made plenty of movies with happy endings, but few that feel so reassuring; the return to conventional realism after almost two hours of cartoonish mayhem suggests a fluid glide down to earth. This conclusion is a fitting place for Miike to leave off after a decade of deepening his themes so that his movies now feel rooted in a relatable moral position. After living for cinema for so long, the end of First Love acknowledges that real life is worth living for too.
By Ben Sachs
11 September 2020