Review: First Love (2020) – Rhythmic Ultraviolence

Masatake Kubota and Sakurako Konishi

First Love, the latest from director Takeshi Miike, a director some have referred to as the Japanese Tarantino is not what I expected. While there are shocking moments, Miike doesn’t seek to shock his audience this time around, instead going for an often farcical comedy thriller that morphs constantly between different genres, never comfortable in its own skin, which allows for its audience to get in the mindset of its lead characters as they struggle to define who they are and what they want in a violent and unrelenting world of Yakuza and corrupt cops.

When up and coming boxer Leo (Masatake Kubota) helps Monica (Sakurako Konishi) one night he finds himself embroiled in a scheme devised by a gangster and a corrupt police officer, with he and Monica stuck in the middle. With everyone from the Yakuza to the Chinese mafia looking for them and the real police closing in, Leo finds himself driven to protect someone he has only just met as the night gets progressively more dangerous, violent and darkly comic.

As a 104 minute analogy for figuring out who you want to be, First Love smartly hides its true intentions behind a wealth of well developed characters and a plot so manic, its often hard to take a moment and understand what is going on. Written by Masa Nakamura, this is a plot heavy, fast moving story that at times gets a little to existential, with characters spouting unnecessary drunken philosophy while utterly sober. However the way it manages to string loose threads into a stinging and visceral chase movie while making it seem often directionless at the same time takes a certain type of guts.

By the halfway point, you might not know where you are headed but it ends up being part of the fun as seemingly disparate characters flow in and out of others stories often taking over their narrative entirely. Miike uses this madness to bring out some pitch black comedy. When one gangster ponders to himself how many people he has killed in one night, it shouldn’t be amusing but here it is the ultimate punchline to a series of preposterous murders. While Tarantino often stumbles when making his ultraviolence comical instead of just plain gratuitous, Miike manages to bounce between comedic and emotional often without notice.

While partly because of an impressive score that ebbs and flows with moments of loud and invasive percussion and techno heavy dance beats, First Love is a intoxicating, often infuriatingly paced piece of entertainment that feels almost like a dance. Much like Leo’s bouts in the ring, there is a rhythm to Leo and Monica’s unusual courtship that drags them and us into their dangerous story. Some might take it as an analogy for just going in the direction life takes you, accept your fate. Personally it seems like an open invitation on Miike’s part for his audience to embrace the lunacy.

Rarely taking itself seriously, often intentionally reminding you this is the twisted fairytale of two unlikely victims, full of absurd decapitations and feverish cartoon sequences. Leo and Monica often prove the weakest element of First Love as they bring all of Miike’s more outlandish characters together but never really get to embrace the chaos themselves, instead accepting their roles as unwitting orchestrators.

Because of this, there is plenty of fun to be had in Miike’s stylish yet wretched world but those expecting a hard hitting crime saga will be disappointed as his film never really inhibits itself by needing a point. Instead he uses barbaric violence to establish his world as outside of the modern or the normal. This isn’t the Tokyo of reality thankfully but it doesn’t mean that in amongst the splashes of blood and severed limbs that it isn’t just as bright and cheerful for the outsider looking in.

TSR

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