Takashi Miike’s gazillionth film is a riotous yakuza caper that traffics in the filmmaker’s impeccable balance of extremes.
Insanely prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s career has been narrowly defined by transgression. But while his filmography has regularly stretched the definition of good taste and thrived in extremes, he’s at his best when he not only immerses audiences into nightmarishly chaotic scenarios but untangles from them unscathed.
Miike’s First Love is a curious testament to this talent. The film lands as surprisingly cathartic, even as its construction could alternately be seen as half-baked or charmingly scattered (depending on how charitable one feels towards his usual genre bouillabaisse).
Even by the standards of Miike’s dense, crisscrossing narratives, Masa Nakamura’s intricately webbed script feels nearly impenetrable. Thankfully, the allegiances and animosities that connect Japanese/Chinese blood feuds, failed home invasions, a one-armed assassin, and a missing bag of coke are less individually important than an expression of the ways that conflicts can feel both preordained by tradition and an inevitable byproduct of a life of crime.
Despite invoking those tired and true themes of mutating times, the film is less invested in the complexities of the underworld than the point of intersection with civilian life and how a person who forfeits their own life can adapt to this world. Here, that’s Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), a down-on-his-luck orphan boxer who has a run-in with the odd couple of weary Yakuza member Tase (Shôta Sometani) and opportunistic detective Otomo (Ichi the Killer himself, Nao Ôhmori).
Empowered by the news of a terminal brain tumor, Leo’s life has become a series of strident impulses – such that his entry into the main story is hilariously little more than a perfectly timed punch that rolls him up into exploits with a drug dealer’s rampaging girlfriend (a scene-stealing Becky), Yakuza double agents, and Juri, a call girl suffering from withdrawal and forced to sell herself to pay off her slimeball father’s debts.
Overloaded on drugs, Yuri has recurring hallucinations of her father dressed only in his underwear, a touch that feels all Miike in its mixture of horror and juvenilia. Clinging to every sliver of kindness, she stays close to Leo as various players from both sides descend on their location and they’re forced to defend themselves in a series of misunderstandings which have understandably drawn comparisons to Miike’s friend Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.
These plot strands and characters pile up, but they rarely feel like more than contrivances or excuses for sharp sight gags. Admittedly, these jokes are all pretty inspired, especially one that involves a stuffed animal attached to a Rube Goldberg set-up and an attempted sexual assault that inverts in a satisfying fashion – but it’s nonetheless hard to shake how much of the run time is taken up by the film’s need to elaborate these mostly one-note dynamics.
Even by the standards of Miike’s dense, crisscrossing narratives, Masa Nakamura’s intricately webbed script feels nearly impenetrable.
Charged by Miike regular composer Kôji Endô’s signature musical eclecticism (the score effortlessly moves from pulsating Krautrock to squelching John Zorn horns to slap bass solos), First Love is always pushing forward, even as it trips over its own cumulating narrative. Along the way, Miike develops a winsome romantic relationship between Juri and Leo as it pushes them through a life-affirming (and yes, pretty bloody) gauntlet.
And just as it seems like it’s about to collapse under its own weight, it all climaxes in a messy but exhilarating brawl in a hardware store that serves as a showcase for Miike’s ability to track a busy battlefield. At its peak, it recalls Hong Kong master Johnnie To’s sense of spatial awareness, if he was more interested in a gory melee than the regal pageantry of his shootouts. That’s to say nothing of a moment of technicolor psychedelia bridging a moody chase that ends the film with a soulful sigh.
But isn’t that just Miike for you. He’s not just unpredictable; he makes it look like he planned it that way the whole time.
First Love is currently playing at the Music Box Theatre, and will open elsewhere soon.