Prolific (and often provocative) auteur director Takashi Miike pulls no punches, literally, with his latest film “First Love.” At the jump we see a man’s beheading- another casualty of the long standing gang war between the Japanese Yakuza and the Chinese Triads. Make no mistake, this isn’t just another gore-filled crime flick. It’s also a love story. As well as a darkly funny comedy of errors. It’s a dizzying web of corruption headed off by Kase (Shota Sometani), a Yakuza member looking to flip on his own gang. He joins forces with crooked cop Otomo (Nao Ohmori) to intercept a drug deal and make off with the profits, while framing Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a drug addicted sex slave kept by the Yakuza to repay her father’s debts, as the thief. Immediately this is bungled when Monica’s drug induced hallucination of her father sends her running scared through the Tokyo streets. Our protagonist, amateur boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota), knocks out Otomo and comes to Monica’s rescue. Circumstance and a deep mutual sadness brings the lovers together as they attempt to evade her captors. Earlier that night Leo had been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, and was advised by a fortune teller to use his strength to help others.
At this point Miike intercuts various shady dealings with a frantic energy to keep the viewer guessing, but also introduces a seemingly endless string of wacky thugs all with the same goal: take out the other gangs, get the drugs, and get the money. Yasu (Takahiro Miura) the Yakuza member tasked with retrieving the drugs is taken out by Kase. Yasu’s girlfriend Julie (Becky) is set up to be killed by a Triad by Kase as well, but manages to escape and sets off to seek revenge. Meanwhile Kase blames all of these mistakes as an attack by Triad, at which point a double crossing member of the Yakuza tips off the Chinese of the impending showdown. Various crime bosses are consulted and everyone takes off to find Monica.
At times these scenes are difficult to piece together, but are important for the third act, which is an electrically violent bloodbath taking place in perhaps the world’s most confusingly designed hardware store. This is where Miike’s action directing really shines, as each fight outdoes the last. At one point Kase yells out “this is fucking wild!” while rubbing meth into his wounds, as he’s chased by both the Yakuza and the Triads. After that line everyone in the theater erupted in laughter. Truly this movie is fucking wild. It wraps up nicely with a slick anime sequence, and of course our heroes Leo and Monica survive, mostly unscathed. The ending shows them triumphantly conquering their personal trials (drug addiction for Monica, a boxing match and a clean bill of health for Leo) and I was left feeling relatively satisfied. What’s the message of First Love? Seemingly it’s to choose life as both Monica and Leo are given a second chance at happiness. This saccharine point feels a little lost in all of the bombastic absurdity of the gang war. The “love” between the two feels relatively unearned, despite having survived a death battle together. I would’ve rather watched an entire film of just Yasu’s girlfriend Becky walking shoeless through the streets, taking out gang members and surviving explosions. Overall “First Love” is an emotionally vacant yet fun film. It lands a few laughs, and the action scenes are thrilling. It’s worth the price of admission alone just to enjoy Miike’s visual prowess on the big screen.