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Film Review: First Love

18 February 20 words: Fabrice Gagos

Fabrice Gagos reviews the new blood-splattered crime drama from Takashi Miike - but did he love it? 

Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Sansei Shiomi
Running Time: 108 minutes

I’m not into romantic stories - “boy-meets-girl” stuff - but make it a yakuza film with Takashi Miike (Ichi the Killer, Audition) behind the camera and I’m in for the ride. Leo (Masataka Kubota), a young and wistful boxer whose manager hopes he will express some joy in victory one day, is told he has an inoperable brain tumour and little time to live after he collapses in the ring. 

One night he encounters Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a terrified young woman who has been sold to a drug cartel as sex slave by her indebted father, whose ghost keeps harassing her when she’s not high on drugs. She asks Leo for help when chased by a corrupt cop (Sansei Shiomi) who works with Kase (Shota Sometani), a young yakuza planning to double-cross his family and blame Monica for it. Leo’s intervention - alongside other unforeseen elements like Monica’s pimp’s girlfriend-turned-fighter - lead to mayhem in the streets of Tokyo.  

For those who are not accustomed with Miike’s work, First Love may look a bit weird and ultra-violent; we barely have to wait three minutes to see our first severed head rolling down the street. However, this is actually one of his more accessible films. The director wanted to draw more mainstream fans to the film while not disappointing his more hardcore fans, and he manages this brilliantly. 

Full of the creativity that a lot of younger filmmakers with a larger budget lack

The sweet madness of Miike is here, from a toy puppy triggering an explosion to an animated stunt scene - a choice he made to avoid hurting Japan’s scarcely-available stuntmen - and he manages to hold it together and make every wacky choice serve the story. There’s always something new happening; it’s organic, energetic, punky, and doubtlessly a Miike film. First Love is a love letter to yakuza stories, which Miike says he is so fond of because in their world “it could only take one night and things can change dramatically”.

Turning 60 this year with over a hundred films to his name, Takashi Miike doesn’t seem bored of directing, and even though First Love won’t go down as one of his major works, it’s full of the creativity that a lot of younger filmmakers with larger budget lack in modern mainstream cinema.

But be warned; if you find First Love a bit on the extreme side, then you should probably avoid some of the director’s most cult features. Bear in mind that he once managed to see his episode of Masters of Horror, an anthology quite loose with its restrictions on violence and sexual content, banned from television upon its first attempt to be released.

Did you know? The British Board of Film Classification refused to release Miike’s 2001 yakuza horror Ichi the Killer without three minutes of cuts, and these deleted scenes are still absent from the English DVD today.

First Love is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 20 February and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday 24 February

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