First Love (2019)

Director: Takashi Miike
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Certification: 15
Starring: Masataka Kubota, Nao Omori, Shota Sometani, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Takahiro Iura, Mami Fujioka, Yen Cheng-kuo, Duan Chun-hao, Maimi Yajima, Masayuki Deai, Jun Murakami, Kenichi Takitoh, Bengal, Sansei Shiomi, Seiyo Uchino

With around 100 films under his belt, Takashi Miike is undoubtedly one of cinema's most prolific directors, especially working to this day. This makes it all the more shameful how few of his features I've seen, having only viewed the murderous musical, The Happiness of the Katakuris, and the unforgettable masterpiece that is Audition. Miike's latest feature shows the years have kept him sharp as ever, and just as adept in delivering genre-bending fare.

A young boxer down on his luck, Leo (Masataka Kubota) finds his world transformed upon meeting Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a call-girl that he must rescue. The unfolding night sees the pair caught up in a drug-smuggling scheme, pursued by a corrupt cop, the Yakuza, and an assassin.

As the title gives away, this is a story about a blossoming romance, but it's told in a manner that's far from straightforward. That's made abundantly clear from very early on, when we witness a decapitation on-screen. This first love has become caught in the middle of double-crossing, in an effort to escalate a gang-war for personal gain. What Masaru Nakamura's script captures is a simple tale of love, and tells it in a way that's anything but basic.

From Nakamura's script, Miike translates how something so beautiful can survive among such chaos and disarray. We've seen Leo and Monica go through their own personal troubles, and it becomes a joy to witness them find comfort in each other, deepening their bond while outside forces close in on them. We feel the net tightening around them as manipulated parties move ever closer, intending harm that will bring their pairing to an end, invoking what Tony Scott mastered back in 1993's True Romance. Miike captures this in his own genre-bending style, as his thrilling ride balances such vibrant brutality with side-splitting hilarity, often in the same breath.

Helping the proceedings to run so smoothly are an abundance of excellent side characters. Such history is felt with figures that could've been seen as one-note, like a one-armed crime lord, or a triad member who values honour firstly. The stand-out among these players has to be Shota Sometani, putting a lively performance into Kase, a Yakuza screw-up who sets everything in motion, and finds it going off nothing like he planned. He has big aspirations, but finds them hitting roadblocks regularly throughout the evening, which makes for a good part of the fun.

But considering what's central to the film, it's a relief we believe in the burgeoning bond of our leads, and credit is deserved for the great portrayals. We're initially introduced to Leo, a boxer that's nursing much hurt due to being abandoned by his parents, and finds himself fighting for no reason. Masataka Kubota does spirited work in capturing Leo's struggles, and how invested he becomes upon meeting his first love.

That is Monica, a woman lacking in purpose as she's trapped in addiction and prostitution, in order to pay off her father's debts. Despite how well Sakurako Konishi plays the role, there's a notable lack of agency for her character. Whether it's being haunted by the spectres of her past, serving the plot by needing to be saved, or empowering Leo's arc, she feels more like a plot device for other story possibilities. She's a manic pixie dream victim, and it's a glaring issue that can't be shaken off. In spite of this, it's easy to invest in the pairing when their chemistry shines on-screen so brightly, and by the end, when new purposes have been found, it feels very much earned.