Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. Well Go USA releases the film on Friday, September 27.
A boxer with a brain tumor, a crooked cop with terrible luck, a screw-up yakuza who’s seen too many movies, a dismembered Chinese gangster who wields a pump-action shotgun with his one remaining arm, a terrified prostitute who’s stalked by a ghost in tighty whities, an unkillable femme fatale who will kick a man to death just for being in her way, and the world’s most wonderful heroin. Those are just some of the many different ingredients that prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike swirls into his frequently sublime new gangster film, a piece of work so feral and full of life that you’d never guess it was (at least) the 90th feature its director has made in the last 30 years. Even now, after making everything from scarring horror masterpieces (“Audition”) to unwatchable family comedies (“Ninja Kids!!!”), Miike hasn’t lost any of his lust for life, and he still finds new ways to surprise.
Part “Pale Flower” and part “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?,” “First Love” might start as a hard-boiled piece of pulp fiction, but it isn’t long before it softens into a violent, hilarious, and violently hilarious madcap comedy about the perils of self-interest in a modern world that belongs to the last person standing. Even the young people seem to be suffering from some kind of temporal confusion. “What era is this anyway?” one of the fledgling hoods asks to no one in particular, lamenting that respect is no longer a guiding principle among gangsters the way it was in the old yakuza films (Ken Takakura gets a shoutout, as one of the characters has a crush on the late Japanese screen legend). This is an age of survival, as infighting and foreign gangs threaten to break the yakuza apart, and the more opportunistic members of the yakuza are feeling empowered to act recklessly. The battles are guaranteed, but without honor there can be no humanity.
None of this is of any concern to a young and sullen prizefighter named Leo (“13 Assassins” veteran Masataka Kubota), who fights because it’s the only thing he can do. Leo’s deadly serious mood sets the tone for the first 20 minutes of the film, as he gets knocked out in the first round of a match and then sulks along the back alleys of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district after learning that he’s got an inoperable growth at the base of his skull.
Meanwhile, a punk yakuza called Kase (“Tokyo Tribe” star Shôta Sometani) who wants to be Ken Takakura is trying to go behind his gang and intercept a massive shipment of drugs. Unfortunately for Kase, he’s a total moron. A sociopath, but a moron. His poorly-laid plan couldn’t possibly go more awry than it does. It all hinges on an oblivious sex worker named “Monica” (Sakurako Konishi), who was abused by her father as a child, and is now haunted by his half-naked ghost. Eventually, Miike will play this for laughs — and somehow it works — but for now it’s horrifying and otherworldly.
The temperature only begins to change when Monica tries to run away from Kase’s accomplice, and Leo — who happens to be in the right place at the right time with a death sentence over his head and nothing to lose — decides to help the damsel in distress. The next thing they know, the two young orphans are on the run together, doing their best to stay one step ahead of the gang war that Kase’s abject idiocy and penchant for murder has accidentally inflamed between his sword-slinging boss and the Chinese mafia. Probably not last, and definitely not least, our will-they-or-won’t-they lovebirds have to watch out for the wild-eyed Julie (played by the one-named Becky), who’s chasing the plot with a giant knife in the hopes that she might catch up to the goon who killed her pimp boyfriend.
Got all that? No worries, as Masa Nakamura’s lucid and legitimately wild script does a fine job of stringing it all together; “First Love” so meticulously lays out the groundwork for its wild goose chase of a story that it’s impossible to lose track of what’s going on, a feat that Miike is only able to achieve by treating the opening act of the film like several parallel gangster dramas, and the rest of it like a slapstick comedy where every plot point is just a MacGuffin. He’s aided by a huge cast of memorable characters, all of whom manage to stand out and scream for their own movies. Sometani is particularly brilliant as the yakuza screw-up who never misses a chance to scratch off one of his enemies and climb a rung on the ladder, even if he seems to sink lower with every decision he makes. It’s a performance that artfully straddles the line between dangerous cunning and comic recklessness, and Sometani alone is enough to help “First Love” transition from grittiness to insanity. It’s a legendary performance even before he rigs the cutest bomb in film history, and treats a bullet wound to his chest by rubbing a whole bunch of drugs into it. Hilarity ensues.
And at a certain point, once all the wheels in motion and everyone is just hanging on for dear life, “First Love” is hilarious. There are roughly 45 minutes in the middle of this film when Miike shifts to a higher gear and the whole thing just starts cooking with gas. Miike is moving too fast to be much of a stylist, but his infamously violent sense of humor (see: “Ichi the Killer”) and his clear sense of staging is more than enough to keep the fires going, as Leo and Monica find themselves plunging deeper and deeper into a mess they have nothing to do with.
Each of them can see a faint glimmer of hope on the horizon — a vague promise that they might have some kind of shot at a future if they can manage to survive this giddy nightmare of a night — but they’ll have to look out for each other in order to see the dawn. That prospect is all the forward push that Miike needs to sustain interest through a dodgy car chase, a few turns too many, and a chaotic (but hysterical) final battle that simply cuts into the most convenient location the director’s team could find. It’s the kind of gap that suggests Miike is spreading himself too thin, but then a sudden burst of animation is used to pave over a stunt he clearly didn’t have the budget to pull off with live-action and you remember that this guy has a God-level ability to make something out of nothing. Whatever era this turns out to be, Takashi Miike is still one of its most irrepressible stars.
“First Love” premiered in the Director’s Fortnight category of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.