Takashi Miike is the type of director whose reputation and past films have me automatically bracing myself when I see his name before the credits of a film. You never know what you may get from Miike, from the unexpected brutal second half of Audition, which most definitely affected the entire torture porn movement in horror, to his batshit crazy yakuza films like Ichi the Killer and Gozu, and even the less violent but equally absurd zombie-musical-comedy, The Happiness of the Katakuris. Even though many of Miike’s recent releases that have found their way overseas have been rather restrained samurai classics adapted with respect, First Love strikes the balance between that tone and his familiarly insane earlier films. Although it may not be as expertly made as some of his dramatic turns, and not as crazily memorable (not always in a good way) as some of his earlier exploitation films, First Love finds a balance that is more than watchable. This may be Miike’s most enjoyable/crowd-pleasing film in some time.
Taking place over one fatefully violent evening, a young orphan boxer who has just received news that he is terminally ill crosses paths with a girl with a bad drug habit who is attempting to escape a life as a call girl, a situation she is in to pay for her missing father’s debts. When the criminal couple forcing Monica (Sakurako Konishi) into various forms of pornography and prostitution get pulled into a power play by a low-level yakuza thug, Kase (Shota Sometani), Leo (Masataka Kubota) decides to put his boxing skills and limited time to use by helping out after a chance encounter on the street. This random interaction leads to an even more random romance as Leo and Monica navigate the city to escape Kase and the various other players that inevitably get involved in the plot to overthrow a boss recently released from prison.
Containing an assortment of quirky characters thrown in to seemingly random violence, and even more random romance, First Love made me cringe often through the run-time. Often I found myself in suspense because I actually cared about the fates of the character, not merely because of the graphicness of the violence. This is not to say that the violence doesn’t reach disturbing heights, but simply that the stakes seemed raised by grounding it in some effective (albeit unconventional) melodrama. So disturbed are some of the characters that it also makes for a surprising amount of humor, which is elevated even more by the occasional postmodern twists and a dedication to anti-realism in the form of sudden animated sequences and ‘deus ex machina’ moments. In other words, First Love has the absurd genre-bending similarities to The Happiness of the Katakuris, within the familiar world/genre of the yakuza.
With a film like this, there needs to be a certain level of flexibility on the audience’s part. Even if one sequence is dedicated to realism, there are no promises that this will remain in the following sequence. The same goes for tone, which varies wildly from one moment to the next. Miike is so masterful that he is occasionally able to fit suspense, humor, drama, and romance into a single scene, which may also contain graphic violence. While his style may not be for everyone, it is a godsend for those who tire of stale studio predictability, particularly coming out of Hollywood and Hong Kong in recent years. I’m sure the Japanese film industry also has its culprits in this regard, but Miike seems unlikely to be considered one of them when he continues to release films like this. And that is without even considering some of his lower budget releases of late.
The Blu-ray release of First Love also comes with a DVD copy of the film, though I recommend the high definition for the animation sequence alone. Not to mention, First Love is easily one of the higher production value releases for Miike in some time (with the only exceptions being his completely dramatic samurai films). Unfortunately, the special features contain nothing other than an optional English-language dubbing track and some trailers.
Entertainment Value: 8/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7.5/10
Historical Significance: 6.5/10
Special Features: 1/10