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FIRST LOVE ****

Directed by Takashi Miike.
Starring Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Becky, Mami Fujioka, Takahiro Miura, Jun Murakami, Nao Ohmori.

Japan / UK 2019 108 mins Certificate: 15

 

Released by Signature Entertainment in selected cinemas and on DVD and Blu-Ray on 14th February 2020.

 

Written by regular Takashi Miike collaborator Masa Nakamura (whose notable credits include DEAD OR ALIVE 2 and SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO) and partially modelled on Tarantino’s script for TRUE ROMANCE, this sees the prolific filmmaker enter his fourth decade of movie directing. It’s also the fourth Miike international co-production with the UK’s Recorded Picture Company under the expert eye of veteran producer Jeremy Thomas, who helped shepherd BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL – promoted as the director’s 100th feature – to the screen last year. As ever, Miike’s playful, genre-blending style is evident from the very beginning as the movie swiftly establishes a genuinely sympathetic protagonist while oscillating between gruesome slapstick comedy (a blinking severed head splatting on to a rainy street) and flirtations with straight horror that vaguely nod to Miike’s beloved AUDITION: a mysterious figure emerges slowly from underneath a bedsheet.

 

Handsome young boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota, also in TOKYO GHOUL and Miike’s 13 ASSASSINS) has a day job packing eggs while ambitiously pursuing a career in boxing, believing “it’s all I can do”. His manager believes he lacks the true drive to be a full-blown champion in the sport, but boxing magazines are already keen to give him the coverage. Everything changes when Leo’s health concerns lead to a diagnosis of a large, inoperable tumour at the base of his skull. Parallel stories unfolding over the course of a single, bloody night in Tokyo involve the Filipino dealer decapitated in the first reel, a freshly released prominent Chinese crimelord, a crooked cop waiting for a large Meth shipment that he can confiscate and sell on and the deceptively fresh-faced gangster Kase (Shota Sometani) who is playing everybody off each other. By chance, the paths of Leo and a young, pretty female escort dubbed “Monica” (newcomer Sakurako Konishi) – sold into the sex trade by her own debt-ridden father – cross in the tradition of Clarence and Alabama as the busy script tracks its own to an inevitable final act bloodbath.

 

Kubota and Konishi bring pathos and real heart and charm to the lead roles in FIRST LOVE, both adorned with bleak family backstories and Monica prone to drug-addled hallucinations and the years of abuse she suffered back home. Her past torment surfaces in the form of unsettling visions and flashbacks that tip the movie into darker territory but, typical of Miike, the grimmer elements are leavened with humour, wacky tangents and a not unwelcome pinch of sentimentality. At one point, Monica’s usually traumatising waking dreams unleash an absurd middle-aged man dancing on the subway in his underpants.

 

Even at its most grisly and serious, the film is a long way from the extreme violence and troubling portrayal of women that repelled some from Miike’s infamous ICHI THE KILLER – and also in a different universe to the disturbing / hilarious free-wheeling insanity of the Lynchian GOZU or the bold combination of melancholia and cringe-inducing physical horror that made AUDITION so unforgettable. The basic plot is a convenient hook upon which Miike can hang a sequence of enjoyably random vignettes, including an interlude with a chirpy young overworked nurse slightly tipsy on apple sours and a show-stopping bit in which a yapping toy dog escapes his leash and causes an inferno. An initially troubling sequence of vengeful assassin Julie (Becky Rabone) forced to strip at gunpoint turns into a spectacular, ball-busting display of her particular set of skills as she stomps on an easily distracted male assailant for getting bloodstains on her clothes (“Don’t get out of this by dying!”). A jarring moment in which an old woman is punched out results in a sense of conscience for an otherwise unrepentant criminal.

 

The dialogue has a nice line in witty understatement (“Everything’s fucked”) and pithy one liners (“Trust in Japanese cars”) while the nods to prominent American movies veer from the long-treasured (THELMA AND LOUISE) to the cruelly underrated: one key plot twist is a riff on the wonderful but unloved Tom Hanks vehicle JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO. Miike relishes the transitions from hilarity to tragedy, from car chases to self-pleasure and allows the movie to delightfully morph into a Pop Art animation en route to its suitably bittersweet ending. The two romantic leads are worth rooting for, and the extended, climactic warehouse showdown delivers the punchy Miike shootouts and swordfights you want alongside the Monty Python-esque comedy dismemberments he has always relished. The supermarkets will be telling your girlfriend / boyfriend / on-call shagfriend that you need to cuddle up and watch something with Gerard Butler during Valentine’s month. Your common-sense glands direct you only to the filmmaker who has been there for you much longer than either your significant other or Mr. Butler.

 

Steven West.

 

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