There’s almost nothing better for post-midnight viewing than a heavy helping of Japanese genre rowdiness, and there’s perhaps no director working more synonymously with that particular brand of cinematic mayhem than Takashi Miike.
Miike’s oeuvre spans from his disturbing gore dramas in Audition and Ichi the Killer to modern Samurai favourites in 13 Assassins and Blade of the Immortal, bizarre comedies in The Happiness of the Katakuris and even the live-action adaptation of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Fortunately a tasting platter of some of the finer cuts from all these varied works is available in First Love, streaming at SBS On Demand.
Modelled after other romantic rampages like Tony Scott’s Quentin Tarantino-penned True Romance and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, the film follows a pair of leads who run into each other’s arms, quite literally, and then find themselves pursued by vengeful Yakuza, scheming Triads, a corrupt cop, and a manic pimp in a mad dash across the Tokyo nightscape for missing drugs and professional revenge.
Although, perhaps a better description would be to say that the leads don’t find themselves pursued, at least for the first half of the film, a great deal of time is spent building up a number of concurrently running plot threads that all exist perpendicular to each other, with characters present in one plotline often unaware of what characters in others are doing or having done to them.
The leads aren’t even aware of their own role in the compounding schemes and scams of the Yakuza and the Triads until the finale. Young boxer Leo, played by Masataka Kubota, has been given a devastating diagnosis. He helps Yuri, played by Sakurako Konishi, as she traipses around Tokyo going cold turkey because he sees the commonalities in their seemingly terminal situations, not because she’s been framed by a Yakuza upstart and a buffoonish dirty cop for a narcotics heist and a murder.
Miike switches between these various plot threads and groupings of characters with a brevity that leaves the film feeling much more trim than its near two-hour runtime would suggest, occasionally slamming one set of figures into another before tearing them apart and sending them off in their own directions.
The resulting pacing is manic, darting from locale to locale and confrontation to confrontation with an intensity that both sells the danger of the situation and plays as a dramatically ironic counter to the humour and moments of tonal softness that are interspersed throughout, and it’s this tendency that leaves the film a standout in Miike’s filmography.
There’s such a variety of modal points throughout the film that range from the aggressively violent to the starkly comic to the outright sweet and romantic, and all of these disparate ideas are finely balanced and, to an extent even predicated upon each other, so that they function wonderfully in tandem.
It’s certainly bizarrely humorous that the film is centred on the mortality of Leo while slicing through a bevy of street toughs and indeed opening with a very casual decapitation, but it speaks to Miike’s uncanny intimacy with the emotive resonance of the film that he manages to make Leo’s journey personable and at the same time have goons eviscerating each other be as wildly entertaining as that description would imply. What that description might imply that’s not so present is the gore, which is markedly toned down from other Miike ventures and used here in small and memorable instances to punctuate scenes and suddenly shift the tone.
Most of the violence is relatively grounded and personal, with the majority of the fight scenes being choreographed around short and impactful blows delivered by unevenly placed combatants forced into close quarters by the cramped interiors they find themselves in. Not to stray too far from type, however, Miike does throw in one killer sword fight featuring a one-armed combatant and a lot of deliciously angular lighting complementing the tight and frantic cinematography.
The whole film is covered in streams of light enveloped in heavy shadows that show off the claustrophobic underbelly of Tokyo, and the delicate colour palette that those environments are rendered in adds an otherworldly distance which informs the fairy tale angle that bolsters the genuine romantic chemistry developed between the leads.
Individually, these elements would be enough to propel any number of midnight features to cult status and beyond, but when they’re brought together in a slick yet sincere manner as they are here it’s something special. First Love is a late-night feast because it has so many aspects of other pulp fare and chooses to use them from different angles and varied textures from what one would expect, satisfying and challenging its audience in equal measure. It has everything you’d expect a madcap Yakuza action-comedy-romance hybrid to have and so much more, along with a rousing technicality and charming actors in charming roles.
Takashi Miike may very well never make anything this rounded and approachable again, so do yourself a favour and grab your even slightly cinema-minded friends, and jump in to the warm embrace of Japanese genre films with First Love.
First Love is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
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