Grandmaster Takashi Miike returns with another crime saga and genre hybrid in First Love, a downshift in his trademark provocation but no less spirited. This time Miike turns fablistic in rooting through violence, capturing a young love starting in the crosshairs of the criminal underworld. He’s as witty as ever, and as idiosyncratic, but this film is much more tame in its delights, losing much of the director’s signature danger in the process.
First Love is a love story buried in the package of a crime film, if neither genre really enhances the other. Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a young boxer with a protective streak, burdened by a brain tumor diagnosis. Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is an addict sex worker who is also exploited as a collateral device in a drug scheme, with visions of a man in whitey tighties chasing her. When the two cross paths on late evening streets, Leo becomes her rescuer, unawares of the plot he has just thrust himself into.
The remaining film becomes an amalgam of yakuza revenge (fronted by the histrionic hilarity and fur-clad iconography of Becky’s Julie), splatter violent comedy, and pseudo-teen getaway romance. It’s a lot of tonal balls in the air that the Japanese master naturally deftly handles. First Love’s most delightfully indulgent quality is its sense of fun, marinating in a sense of whimsy despite the circumstances and violence to come. But for those familiar to Miike’s filmography, the film can’t help but feel a bit like a dampened experience. It’s fresh, but not at all new.
Much of what keeps First Love from taking off is that Miike is working with less interesting elements to begin with. The simple archetypes here, however much adrenaline and showmanship the director approaches here, lack their own kind of distinction to match the tongue-in-cheek brutality that he submerges them into. It also feels like Miike’s most visually homogenous film, grooving on a patina of cool but lacking a daring spark to take it to the next level.
The characters’ depth don’t incite much fascination beyond a few details that Miike leans into – Monica’s dimness, Julie’s heightened rage, Leo’s teen idoldom. The result reduces Miike’s exacting approach to an almost cutesy, or quirky, veneer that makes the whole feel like a lesser work, even if it still entertains. You almost wonder what Miike saw in the material to begin with. Is the master just coasting here? Maybe, but First Love still is an easy treat.
If this means the film is less singularly Miike-an in its verve, the filmmaker still delights in giving us a good time at the movies firmly within his wheelhouse. Masa Nakamura’s screenplay serves up plentiful opportunities for entertaining dynamics among the ensemble, but ones we have seen before, especially within this kind of film. The film builds from its oddball beginnings in its first hour of many plot threads, before unleashing its ultraviolence in a torrent of moods. But once the setup has begun to payoff, we’re maybe a little too accustomed to how it’s going to fall out.