Having directed almost 100 movies in a little under 30 years, Takashi Miike is one of the most prolific filmmakers working today. He’s also one of the most distinctive, and though his incredibly high output means there’s likely to be plenty of chaff in amongst that super-stylised wheat, First Love is undoubtedly of the latter variety. Action-packed, blood-soaked and hyper-octane, it’s a chaotic rollercoaster of a gangster flick that never pauses for breath but frequently stops to chuckle.
The story centres on Leo (Masataka Kubota) and Monica (Sakurako Konishi); he’s an aspiring boxer who has just learned a brain tumour gives him little time left on the planet, she’s a deeply damaged sex worker who must pay off her father’s debts to the Yakuza. After fate throws the pair of them together, they find themselves embroiled in an uber-complicated drug heist gone wrong. A corrupt cop, a crazed girlfriend and the Chinese mafia all become involved as the hapless pair must use their wits and ride their luck to stay alive.
The plot itself is barmy and bounces all over the place, with more twists, double-crosses and blindsides than most directors manage in their entire careers. Keeping track of all of the various characters, their motivations and the subplots which interconnect them might be a little challenging, but even if the breakneck velocity compromises comprehension, it doesn’t affect enjoyment one bit. A vibrant colourscape, an arresting soundtrack and plenty of Tarantino-esque deadpan humour only serve to enhance the experience. It’s a wild and disorientating ride – but an exhilarating one.
Miike’s trademarks are all here in abundance; the snappy dialogue stuffed full of gallows hilarity, the larger-than-life characters and, of course, plentiful lashings of the old ultraviolence. But while the film sets out its stall in the opening scene as Leo’s knockout punch in the boxing ring is juxtaposed alongside the decapitation of a Yakuza dissident in a dingy back alley (complete with aimless staggering from the headless corpse), the sadism is not quite as pronounced or as perverse as in some of his other work, making First Love perhaps a good gateway for those unfamiliar with his canon.
Gangster films normally go one of two ways: gritty and realistic, or fun but far-fetched. First Love definitely falls into the latter camp, with the narrative frequently stretching credibility to shoehorn in as much charm, charisma and choreographed conflicts as possible. That’s especially true of a climactic final act which doesn’t really bother beggaring belief, but it’s effortless cool and relentless pace mean that First Love remains a joy from its punchy start to its breathless finish. If only all first loves could be as enthralling an experience.