'First Love' Might Just Knock You Out

Oct 4, 2019

The characters in Takashi Miike's First Love spend a lot of time explaining what they're doing. That’s usually terrible filmmaking technique, but if they didn't tell the audience what’s going on, the movie might be impossible to follow.

First, there's a boxer, named Leo. He’s good, but he inexplicably falls down out cold in one of his fights. In another part of town, there’s a young prostitute, Yuri, whose clients call her Monica. Monica literally was given to a criminal gang, a Yakuza, by her father, who owed money to the Yakuza. Monica is controlled by a madam, who turns out to be a ferocious martial arts-style fighter, but then she in turn is neutralized in a car by a guy named Kase who unbuckles her seatbelt, alternately guns the accelerator and jams on the brakes, and knocks her out.

There’s a complicated plot to steal drugs from the Yakuza and frame young Monica, but as Monica flees from an assailant, she runs past the boxer, whom she does not know, but he decks the assailant, and apparently that constitutes the beginning of first love for both of them. 

What seals their tender affections comes in the middle of a multi-gang shoot-out in something like a big box store in the dead of night. First Love ultimately takes a dim view of consumerism.

First Love is the 103 film or video by Takashi Miike, all made since 1990, which comes out to about five a year, which is a lot of filmmaking. And he has a tremendous following around the world. He certainly has plenty of energy in his movies, and he also puts on screen many things you might not expect, if your own film going does not include movies by Takashi Miike. Things like severed heads or a Yakuza henchman punching an aged woman in the face.

Most everything that goes on in First Love is an offense to good taste and modest living, of course. There’s plenty of blood, chases, sword fights, deals for methamphetamine, all encased in improbability. The movie also manages to violate basic rules of filmmaking. The young boxer is diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor – that’s why he falls down in his last match. But, wait, he soon gets a series of phone messages from an apologetic young physician because there was a mix up. The doctor had read the wrong MRI. The boxer is fine – and so much for silly things like plausibility.

But director Takashi Miike is no fool and he has not made a dopey cartoonish movie. Even a brief animated sequence – which does look like a cartoon – brings home the notion of the need to exaggerate in a world gone bonkers. For all its crazy violence and chasing, First Love really is about two improbable young people finding love in a world where fathers sell their daughters, people kill each other over drugs and almost no one shows basic respect for human life. The story also takes place only at night. You never see the sun, just Tokyo with lots of neon lights and streets crowded apparently only with criminals.

The irony is easy to see through the over-the-top characters and situations. But the irony is important; it’s not just there to make the filmmakers look superior to their story. When the Yakuza talk about honor, it’s at first a joke, because they’re just drug-dealing thugs, but the idea hangs on. Honor matters; decency matters, and so does love. Leo and Yuri don’t have a Hollywood-style meet cute like hundreds of Hollywood romances. Leo and Yuri meet cute in the context of a world which has lost its manners and its moral center. But in their slapdash way, they meet spontaneously – and they find a way for themselves.

First Love opens October 4 at the Mayan in Denver.