First Love review – energetic and violent Yakuza yarn

Takashi Miike's 103rd feature, a rom-com-gangster genre mishmash, proves thrilling and frustrating in equal measure

Though there might be more consistently critically lauded or world-famous directors than Takashi Miike, few filmmakers can match the Japanese auteur’s crazy work ethic. Not only does First Love mark his 103rd project since 1991, he’s already completed his 104th. It’s an absurd output, as daunting as it is impressive, though for the uninitiated First Love would make a solid introduction. A likeable and gleefully violent thriller that refuses to descend into the gory depravity that has defined some of Miike’s more infamous work, it mashes together genres for a fun – if somewhat shallow – underworld yarn.

It’s part gang war thriller, part rom-com, as two young down and outs in Tokyo – Leo (Masataka Kubota), a boxer with a brain tumour, and Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a prostitute who keeps seeing a ghost wearing nothing but tighty-whities – find themselves caught between the Yakuza and the Chinese Triads. In to this mix is thrown a disastrous drug-stealing scheme hatched by weaselly Yakuza lieutenant Kase (Shota Sometani) and a corrupt cop, made all the more troublesome by an unkillable gangster’s moll and a sharpshooting nurse.

If you’re wondering how all these elements tie together, well, so is the film itself, and for a long time these strands simply don’t connect. We’re well over 40 minutes into First Love before all the table-setting is complete and the action can take off in earnest. It takes some patience, but Miike tides you over with the occasional decapitation and Sometani’s blast of a performance as Kase. His constant anger and confusion at the hurdles faced by his ill-considered plan proves very funny, and even though he may be First Love’s least moral character (a real achievement, given its milieu), it’s hard not to root for him.

Once everything’s in place, however, Miike lets rip and has some real fun. With a plot that takes place over one wild night, the pace is breathless and the action is frenetic. Shootouts become sword fights, which in turn transform into fist fights before everyone hops into a vehicle for a car chase, all of which is terrifically choreographed and executed. Miike gets around his budgetary constraints with customarily hilarious imagination: Gravity-defying stunts happen in animated interludes, while multi-car pileups are simply implied by some over the top, off-screen sound effects.

Given how silly and busy First Love is, it’s hard to develop any sort of emotional connection with its characters and, like a lot of Miike’s films, too many communicate exclusively through screaming and yelling. An attempt at pathos in the last 10 minutes strikes an odd, unearned note, and though they are good company, Kubota and Konishi don’t quite possess the sparkling chemistry needed to make the central romance truly land. First Love is far from perfect, but it is wildly entertaining. Who else but Takashi Miike could successfully implement a robot dog murder at an emotional moment in a character’s journey and get away with it?

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