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First Love
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by Jay Seaver

"A meet-cute in a Takashi Miike movie is dangerous!"
4 stars

It's not just that director Takashi Miike has been incredibly prolific over the course of his career - this year's Fantasia International Film Festival was unusual not just in that he didn't have a film on the program, but that he usually has at least two - but in that he's done a bit of everything, from art-house experiments to family adventures to blockbuster comic-book adaptations, even if he's best known for offbeat crime and horror. "First Love" may not be the gob-smacking experience that his breakout films were, but is some good, old-school Miike, a throwback to when he was cranking out yakuza films on deadline and neither self-consciously weird nor surprisingly mainstream, even if it's also aware that those days are past.

It starts with a young boxer, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), who frustrates his coach by being talented but not passionate, like this is a job he fell into because he showed an aptitude in high school - at least until he has an apparent seizure in the ring and is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Elsewhere in Tokyo, yakuza Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) has just been released in prison and if he's not quite spoiling for a fight, he's not going to do anything to make war with the Chinese triads in Shinjuku less inevitable. One member of his clan, Kase (Shota Sometani), has a plan to kick it off now, stealing a shipment of meth from low-level soldier Yasu with the help of corrupt detective Ohtomo (Nao Ohmori) and then sitting it out for a couple year in jail on a minor charge before picking up the pieces when he gets out. They'll make the drug-addicted call girl stashed in Yasu's apartment, Yuri "Monica" Sakakuri (Sakurako Konishi), their fall guy. Or at least that's the plan before Monica hallucinates the father who sold her into prostitution and bolts past a sulking Leo, who thinks Ohtomo is attacking her and lays him out, while on Leo's end, Yasu's girlfriend Julie (Becky) proves unexpectedly difficult to dispose of.

There's more going on, although the traditional power struggles and other tales of yakuza honor are few and far between, which is something the characters themselves seem to find frustrating: Gondo is released into a world where the yakuza, who have often been portrayed as increasingly businesslike in recent years, are at the end stage of it, preparing to consolidate in a massive merger to stand against foreign competition, and is none to pleased about it. The triads' chief enforcer Chia is ironically even more disappointed; she came to Japan expecting to be thrust into a Ken Takakura movie only to find that culture dead or dying, if it was ever real. Miike and writer Masa Nakamura don't overtly harp on the end of the yakuza for much of the movie - we're already past showing prominent back tattoos or missing digits even to complain about the new generation not respecting tradition - but it's probably telling that a climactic moment completely disengages from reality. That's what audiences want now, and that's what they're going to get.

Indeed, the filmmakers are more interested in the ordinary people caught in their wake, to the point where the throwaway character of a drunk nurse gets one of the more memorable scenes in the early going. Before that, Monica is introduced as a miserable, strung-out mess, and her first hallucination of her father feels like something out early Kiyoshi Kurosawa or even the first time the bag moved in Miike's own Audition - simple, practical, and nevertheless uncanny, an everyday object behaving in a way it ought not to and thus making it easier for the audience to believe that this is all very real to Monica in the moment. The ghost is absurd at times, and Monica knows that but is scared anyway, and Sakurako Konishi wrings a great performance out of it. She and Masataka Kubota underplay the chemistry between Monica and Leo, but their characters complement each other like damaged puzzle pieces (him a detached and emotionally stunted orphan who has just lost the only thing he knows, her a stressed daughter still being pulled down by her father's misdeeds) and fit together by the end, with Kubota able to sell Leo fully understanding his own arc.

The hallucinations are not the only way things get crazy, though, especially by the end, when Becky is dumping all the rage one can imagine into Julie while Shota Sometani careens through the final battle royale like he's indestructible because a bullet that hit him passed through a packet of drugs and allowed a fair amount to enter his bloodstream directly. The trick Miike and company pull throughout the movie is that there's usually a joke as things get a little more dangerous, so that by the time Monica and Leo are trying to duck a battle between yakuza, triads and what looks like Tokyo's entire police force outside a department store, things have gotten completely crazy but without ever having made too great a single step from where they started.

For all the eventual violence of the last act and odd, energetic swerves, there is actually plenty of time when First Love feels like the youth hangout getting-to-know-you movie its name implies, with time to get to know Leo and Monica and let them talk out their backgrounds, even as it keeps throwing them into danger or cutting away to show how the criminals are tracking them and turning on each other. Part of why Miike has made so many movies is that even if people remember the more outrageous bits, he doesn't go overboard with every scene, and even when Kondo and "One-Arm Wang" have pulled out swords for a grudge match, things don't get too showy as opposed to being clear, well-staged action.

Those scenes never fully overshadow Leo and Yuri (as the audience comes to think of Monica once the more disreputable layers are cleared away), which may disappoint some who see Miike's movies for the insanity - or those seeing his biggest Stateside release in some time based on his reputation. But it makes "First Love" probably the best date movie he's made, at least until you know that the two of you are on the same wavelength.

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originally posted: 10/08/19 14:29:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2019 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

User Comments

10/20/19 damalc most fun i've had at a movie in a while 4 stars
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  27-Sep-2019 (NR)
  DVD: 11-Feb-2020


  DVD: 11-Feb-2020

Directed by
  Takashi Miike

Written by
  Masa Nakamura

  Sakurako Konishi
  Masataka Kubota
  Shota Sometani
  Nao Ohmori

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