Takashi Miike’s latest is yet another win for the cult Japanese director, says Gaming Editor Alex Green, as First Love crashes onto home video
To look at Takashi Miike, is to look at the work of a man who is an extreme definition of the term ‘auteur’. The 59-year old has amassed a surprisingly diverse filmography in spite of his penchant for extreme violence and yakuza members, with horror films such as one of his best-known works Audition and even animated fantasy programming. Whilst not all of his work is necessary the most accessible and sometimes results in some rather disgusting scenes. He once again applies his particularly brand of violence to a love story with his newest film First Love, in which up-and-coming boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is embroiled in a yakuza drug deal when he decides to protect a girl called Monica (Sakurako Konishi) at the centre of it all.
The result is a love story that would be a huge understatement to describe as ‘unconventional’. This, of course, will divide an audience, as Miike’s films always do. After all, Miike leans into every artistic device he can to take a fundamentally simple story and elevate it through its visuals and use of editing. However, this is what takes First Love from a standard action story into a transcendental narrative.
From a screenplay perspective, there are few films out there that display the balance that First Love has, deftly transferring between numerous plot threads and integrating them so effortlessly, creating an incredibly cohesive story. This is especially incredible given how the film is balancing the yakuza’s efforts to obtain the drugs with slower scenes in which our two protagonists explore a burgeoning relationship and connect. It helps the love story itself between Leo and Monica is given plenty of dialogue and time for the pair to actually feel their connection grow in a way that is able to overcome the language barrier to present a relationship that is brilliantly acted by Kubota and Konishi and feels engaging.
Whilst the screenplay is helpful in this scenario, that can only get the final product so far – what ties this together is Miike’s direction. There is a certain self-indulgence to what he does which does at points go overboard, creating some shots and scenes that feel more designed to be a fantastical kaleidoscope of imagery rather than impressively logical takes. That said, it’s hard not to invest in First Love when Miike makes it so easy for the audience to do so. His takes are long, and he keeps the camera restrained, allowing the film’s love story to unfold and the dialogue to flow naturally without an unnecessary fast pace to disrupt it. Of course, this changes when the action starts to kick in, the pace picks up and the camera moves motivated by the direction of the action. The occasional closeness does lose some clarity, but the combat is bloody and full of brutality, yet Miike doesn’t lose sight of character in these.
The technical achievements don’t just land in the direction standpoint, with First Love also boasting a fantastic musical score. Kôji Endô puts together a thrilling score which beautifully matches the freneticism of the combat to a tee and is also a well-disciplined score that accepts the use of silence. The film also has a solid pace achieved through nicely done editing, despite the delicate balancing act it has to achieve in the second act. Achieving all this while having excellent cinematography from Nobuyasu Kita is an fantastic technical feat.
One of the great strengths of First Love is the desire to explore thematic concepts and use those to drive the conflicts and fighting that ultimately occurs. These concepts take the form of a larger look at Japan’s yakuza, the conflict between themselves and the Chinese triad and uses these to craft a story about honour in an intriguing way that helps to provide an additional sense of complexity on top of the already solid narrative.
What is truly strange about First Love is the utterly ridiculous tone, which creates some truly brilliant dark humour. This was an element largely praised in Parasite and this infectious humour as characters and events slowly become more and more wacky and insane become hilarious as the characters each take their own comic stance. As the finale approaches, the comic insanity grows and grows to a completely absurd level that makes the third act incredibly engaging despite the madness getting in the way of their own realism. A necessary sacrifice of a dose of realism to embrace the hilarious tone works perfectly in this regard.
The only genuine issue that is presented as a result is the tonal whiplash in the film’s ending which sadly means the end of the film does lack the necessary impact that Miike seems to desire in the film’s final moments. Aside from this and the slight self-indulgence in an occasional shot or two, First Love is once again Miike doing what he does best: weaving in genres we know with a huge dose of violence all with a twisted but alluring glee.
First Love is funny, intriguing and constantly mad. That madness though is so hard to ignore, particularly when the film-making behind it is so brilliant.
First Love is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.
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