Diabolically Funny, Takashi Miike's 'First Love' Is A Wild Romp Through Asian Gangster Genre Tropes
A diabolically funny blast of pulp fiction from the mind-bogglingly prolific Takashi Miike, “First Love” is a wild romp through Asian gangster genre tropes that sends clichés careening into each other with a prankster’s perversity. The 59-year-old Miike’s 103rd (!!!) feature finds the notorious provocateur behind midnight movie classics such as “Audition” and “Ichi the Killer” in a playful mood, sending two innocent lovers on the run from an ever-expanding gallery of peculiar criminals during an evening of slapstick misunderstandings that come to gruesomely amusing ends. The movie doesn’t have a thing on its mind besides mayhem and I enjoyed it enormously.
Masataka Kubota stars as young, down-on-his-luck prizefighter Leo, who recently went to the doctor under the assumption that he’d taken too many punches to the head, only to be told that his dizziness is the result of an inoperable brain tumor. Despondent and wandering the streets at night, the boxer happens upon a call girl named Monica (Sakurako Konishi) being harassed by her client, and it isn’t until after Leo knocks out this handsy john that he discovers the guy is a crooked cop.
Turns out our now-unconscious public servant was secretly working with baby-faced yakuza turncoat Kase (Shôta Sometani) to steal a shipment of cocaine and pin the blame on his escort. We learn that poor Monica was sold into sex slavery by her abusive, deadbeat dad — half-naked hallucinations of whom we see chasing her around the subway whenever she goes into drug withdrawals — and now her scummy pimp’s maniac girlfriend (one-named actress Becky) assumes she’s made off with their stash.
What’s a riot about “First Love” is how almost every insignificant little event that occurs onscreen is completely misinterpreted by people who immediately retaliate with violent actions that make everything a hundred times worse. (Sometimes it feels like watching a Coen brothers movie on fast-forward.) Kase’s simple robbery goes awry in such extravagant fashion it accidentally incites an all-out war with the Chinese triads, the movie's body count ratcheting up to where it becomes a running gag that our young yakuza loses track of how many people he keeps having to kill while trying to cover up his scheme.
With his slick hairdo, leather jacket and smarmy air of unearned privilege, Sometani is exactly the kind of heel you love to root against, a second-generation gangster who assumes he’s always the smartest guy in the room. Much to our continued consternation, this wily survivor keeps worming his way out of what should be certain doom, screwing over friends and foes while generally doing anything to save his own skin. The performance reaches its comic zenith during the film’s madcap third act after Kase is shot through a cocaine kilo he has hidden in his breast pocket — the powder seeping into his wound making him impervious to pain, and higher than a kite.
By contrast, Leo and Monica are a little dull, symbols of virtue and decency imperiled in this nocturnal underworld. Their predicament and the ensuing carnage (not to mention the film’s title) can’t help but call to mind 1993’s “True Romance,” in which screenwriter Quentin Tarantino engineered a similar Rube Goldberg deathtrap involving a young man, his hooker girlfriend and a suitcase full of blow. But Masa Nakamura’s script spends less time with the lovers and has more interest in introducing cool, colorful villains, like the one-armed Chinese assassin who works his pump-action shotgun single-handedly.
“First Love” is a deviously inventive picture, setting its protracted action climax inside a housewares store for easy access to lots of pointy props. The story’s most elaborate stunt sequence apparently exceeded the movie’s budget, so Miike renders it via animation — the screen suddenly bursting into bright, Roy Lichtenstein colors complete with 1960s “Batman”-styled “CRASH!” sound effect titles drawn over all the chaos. It's a much smoother transition than you might expect, as at heart the whole movie was already a cartoon.
“First Love” opens at Kendall Square Cinema on Friday, Oct. 4.