It is a law of critics that every review of a Takashi Miike film must mention his prolificacy. He’s made over 100 theatrical productions; at his height he was churning out five to six of them a year, but as of late has slowed down to a still-impressive two. While he’s infamous here in the States for gory shockers like “Audition” and “Ichi The Killer,” Miike has worked in practically every genre — his record includes musicals like “The Happiness of the Katakuris,” video game adaptations like “Ace Attorney,” kids’ movies like “Zebraman” and samurai films like “13 Assassins.” His latest work, “First Love,” returns to what might be termed “his wheelhouse,” the yakuza crime thriller — one that just happens to also feature a romantic comedy combined with boxing drama.
The main thread (so much as there is one) follows Leo Katsuragi (Masakata Kubota,) a young boxer who learns that he has an inoperable brain tumor. As he walks the streets at night, he clocks a man running after Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), an addict who works as a call girl under the name Monica, and chases after him. Unfortunately, the man Leo hits is Otomo (Nao Omori), a corrupt cop working with the boyish yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani). He has hatched a plan to steal a shipment of meth from Yuri’s pimp, blaming the ensuing fallout on the Chinese triads. You can probably guess things don’t go well, and soon Leo and Yuri are on the run from all these elements, plus Juri (singer and television personality Becky), the pimp’s girlfriend, goes on the warpath to avenge him.
There certainly is a lot going on in the storyline, and the beginning moments are slightly scattered as each one of them is set up. Masaru Nakamura’s screenplay does a remarkable job of keeping everything together, helped by the memorable characters and Miike’s direction. Prolific as he is, Miike never slacks when it comes to the camera; he keeps things moving at a clip, keeping the tone suspenseful but able to turn on a dime into absolute hilarity. His sick sense of humor runs from the very beginning, when we cut from Leo punching an opponent straight to a severed head rolling into an alley.
The plot as a whole is rather farcical, Kase in particular has a rough time that wouldn’t be out of place in “Fargo.” Perhaps the most memorable character is Juri; she’s frightening yet oddly exciting presence. She comes in with a bang, kicking down a door into Yuri and calling her a “noisy whore” (a scene that’s much funnier than it sounds). Every time she walks on screen, there’s a palpable tension in regard to she’s going to do next, but you always get the feeling that she’s grieving. Her method just happens to include a lot of kicking, and maybe a sword or two. That such a wild character fits naturally into the rest of the picture tells you just how crazy this gets.
For a man infamous for gore fests like Miike, you might be surprised at how tame this film is. Of course, it’s still a movie featuring decapitations, multiple people getting shot and explosions; the climax in a hardware store is a fantastic scene of suspense and chaos, punctuated with a jaw-dropping gag. “First Love” is just plain fun to watch, and on top of that it’s a surprisingly heartfelt romance. Where else can you get a terrifying hallucination of a character’s father who suddenly starts dancing in his underwear on the subway? Nowhere in America, that’s for sure.