First Love (Hatsukoi)

Japan (2019) Dir Takashi Miike

You know what they say about best-laid plans. In real life, it can be very frustrating when they go awry but in cinema, it often leads to one hell of a rush.  And when such a scenario is depicted by the enfant terrible of Japanese cinema, Takashi Miike, all bets are off!

Boxer Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) sees his career screech to a halt after learning of a tumour on his brain that needs an immediate operation, but with neither the funds nor anything to live for, having been abandoned as a child, Leo accepts his fate. Meanwhile, Yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani) and corrupt police officer Otomo (Nao Omori) formulate a plan to steal drugs from Kase’s gang and blame it on a rival Chinese Triad gang.

Kase sets up fellow Yakuza and rug runners Yasu (Takahiro Miura) and his girlfriend Julie (Becky) who have young prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi) enslaved in their flat. To get them out of the flat, Kase books Monica for Otomo to allow him to steal the drugs from the flat, whilst having set up a Triad member to abduct Julie to stall her and have someone to pin the theft on. Except it all goes horribly wrong. 

Had this been Britain in the 1970s one might envision the legendary Brian Rix making one of his noted comedy farces from such a storyline, and he would pull it off too. But in the hands of Miike, there is little to laugh about – well, actually there is but the humour is jet black and Rix would never have any of his cast shot, stabbed or decapitated like Miike does.

First Love does not deliver what it says on the tin if one is expecting a fluffy rom-com, not that anyone would expect such a film from Miike anyway, regardless of how prolific and genre jumping his catalogue is. What we do get is arguably his most straightforward and insanely enjoyable film in a while that is everything Miike is known for insofar as his penchant for subversion and brash content, but done with a huge grin on his face.

Written by regular Miike collaborator Masaru Nakamura what begins as a dark Yakuza crime thriller soon becomes a comedy of errors in a world populated with unpleasant and flawed people. The first act is a little unwieldy in laying the foundation for the main plot, whilst Leo is really the only character who properly established with a history and now a direction and not just a rough sketch hastily thrown into the mix.

Given the nature of this tale, most of the cast are easy to discern anyway since they are very much genre tropes – top ranking Yakuza Gondo (Seiyô Uchino) is stoic yet suave, Julie and Yasu are deranged scum, Kase is smarmy, and Otomo easily lead. It is really Monica who needs fleshing as her introduction makes little sense at first, though again this is Miike being Miike.

Monica is in fact the working name for Yuri, a girl whose abusive father was heavily in debt to the Yakuza so he gave them his daughter to work off his debts. Julie and Yusa got he hooked on drugs to make her more compliant, the result of which has left Yuri with hallucinations of her father – in his underpants because Miike – and her first love,  a boy named Ryuji, who stood up to Yuri’s father for her.

The first sighting of Yuri’s dad is a genius moment, in which a bed sheet starts to slowly ruffle then ominously rise up, leading us to expect someone to be underneath, but is so gradual it is effectively spooky. Yuri’s ghost dad pops up a few times, one instance is purely for laughs, but his most crucial appearance is the one that leads to Yuri meeting Leo.

But while this is happening, Kase’s plan is backfiring spectacularly. Having accidentally killed Yusa he did manage to pin it on the Triads, who are looking to avenge their boss One-Armed Wang (so-called because of Gondo) and set out to find Kase to smoke out Gondo. But he didn’t reckon on psychopath Julie surviving her Triad captor and now wants revenge for Yusa.

As Miike has a habit of wandering off script sometimes to take us down a tangential path of surreal madness, he is remarkably restrained here, with the exception of one scene where this subversion comes in very handy to save credibility and no doubt money too. The story might spiral out of control but the narrative remains easy to follow which makes the final act of non-stop carnage a breeze to enjoy.

Unless of course, violence isn’t your bag then it won’t be, but in true Miike fashion, the claret flows, limbs are severed, and the body count rises with regularity over the course of twenty minutes. The multi-person scrap doesn’t discriminate against gender, age, job, or rank and is as messy, darkly funny, and often quite creative as it gets, and yet Miike still finds time for some gentle philosophy in the middle of it!

Earlier I suggested that Miike must have had fun making this film, and it would appear the cast did too, regardless of how gruesome things get for their characters. I don’t think I have seen Shota Sometani play a villain before but he is rather good as the duplicitous Kase, though I fear most people will remember Becky’s hyperactive turn as the unhinged Julie more when this is over, and with good reason.

What makes First Love so unique is how it is essentially everything one expects to see from a Miike film, yet true to form, he offers a coda which is atypical of his usual on the nose style. But I doubt we should read anything into this, as I’m sure Miike’s next film will be tastelessly bonkers for the sake of it, so enjoy this one while you can!

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