First Love

4 out of 5

Directed by: Takashi Miike

Some of the reviews of Takashi Miike’s ‘First Love’ seemed to focus on Miike being “back” in some way or another, with the suggestion that the movie’s inclusion of some splatter was a return to the filmmaker’s more notorious flicks, namely Ichi the Killer and Audition.  This is, of course, rather reductive: while most viewers are aware by now that Miike has plenty of other films in his oeuvre besides these two, he still gets slotted into a particular type of director based on those.  Not that Miike hasn’t leaned into this at points, but those that’ve taken the time to trawl through his extensive list of productions recognize the occasionally obsurdities and excesses as one tool in the director’s deep toolbox.  But whether I’m under-appreciating the “back” commentary, or it was unintentional, such statements are still true in an important way with First Love, as we find Miike not only returning to subject matter that used to be existent in the majority of his older works – the yakuza – but also a more purposefully jagged editing style, and distinctive juxtaposition of music to events (thanks to the ever-reliable Koji Endo), and a masterfully paced alternation between static, distant shots and looser, but controlled camera work.  While the movie does combine some of the “lessons” Takashi has picked up from the big budget cinema world of his past decade or so of work, and finds its way to a type of straight forward ending that wouldn’t have been part of any of those old school V-Cinemas, this is the first film in quite some time to look and feel like a traditional Miike movie.

First Love plays at being of the Pulp Fiction school of accidentally intertwining narratives, but I think that’s an interestingly misleading approach.  Yes, we start with a boxer, Leo (Masataka Kubota), who’s talented but struggling to find a purpose; and then switch to a drug-addicted, hallucinating prostitute, Monica (Sakurako Konishi), held in an apartment for unknown reasons by some criminal types; and then switch to yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani) scheming with crooked cop Ōtomo (Nao Omori) to steal some of Kase’s gang’s drugs; and a vengeful, seemingly invincible girlfriend and an inadvertently stolen badge and a one-armed Chinese gangster and news of a brain tumor all get thrown into the mix to bring these various characters together at different points and yes, that would be a Pulp Fiction story for most directors… but Miike has been doing this cross-cutting, leave-the-plot-for-the-middle-act style for years, across dozens of films, and instead of over-stylizing things, he takes his time with it, making the whole thing feel incredibly casual.  The result is that we get a feel for our characters – who are the focus here – and it allows for the emergence of some themes of fate and legacy of Miike yore to come to the forefront.  It’s really remarkable: while the confluence of who’s-got-the-drugs does lead to another jumble of personalities to be thrown into the mix (various enforcers from the gangs), I was rather amazed by how easily the plot could be followed, very much thanks to the confidence by which Miike was weaving it altogether.

There are still marks of the “Hollywood” style throughout this, some for better, some for worse.  In the plus category, Miike’s shooting style has matured, and seeing this blended with the aforementioned static shots is fascinating.  However, it crosses the line to being too “clean” at points, and is shorn of some of the in-the-moment intensity of his lower budget efforts, a car chase scene in particular sticking out as feeling oddly mundane.  The conclusion is also a bit too cut and dry, but there’s perhaps a dash of commentary to that, as early on a character makes a comment suggestive of mugging like a winner for the camera, and the ending may be a dig on that.

When all of our plot threads and characters do convene, the uptick in action and bloodshed is likely (in my mind) what prompted cheers of a return-to-form for Miike, but that aside, it’s also an amazing juggling act of tone and amazing editing.  With a steady hand, we jump from interaction to interaction, slickly but without confusion, and the vibe teeter-totters between darkly-humored stuff and tense showdowns and emotional confessions, with a reality-breaking moment that also certainly calls to mind something like Dead or Alive, but is also completely fitting for this film in particular, and maybe circles back around to that possible “all’s well that ends well” dig mentioned above.

I’ve quite enjoyed a lot of Miike’s big budget work of the past era, but it was certainly thrilling to see the director work in a style that mixed the old and the new, turning out one of his most solid and thoroughly enjoyable entries to date.