Fists and heads fly in the opening to First Love, which intercuts an underground boxing match with a gruesome beheading. Set during an almost permanent nighttime in the Shinjuku ward of Tokyo, amid the flashing lights of karaoke bars and the orange glow of dingy restaurants, the film wastes no time catapulting us into a whirlwind of police corruption, drug pushing, and Yakuza crime plots. Leo (Masataka Kubota) is our unlikely protagonist, a sullen boxer caught in this web of violence and revenge completely by chance. After saving prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi), unknowingly a pawn in a chess match of deception, Leo becomes the collateral target of a chorus of criminals; a rogue’s gallery of katana-wielding mob bosses, Chinese gangsters, and a woman out for revenge with a crowbar.
Takashi Miike, the masterchef of this impressive banquet, serves up comedy, romance, action, and spectacle—oh, and more than a dash of blood. As his 103rd feature film, First Love is a shining capstone to a career that has traversed gangster territory many times before. He’s a master of the genre and makes the tightrope-walk of influences look easy; he samples from anime, samurai classics, and romantic comedies, blending them in just the right amounts. If you’ve ever wished It Happened One Night was a little more like Battle Royale, this is the movie for you. There’s little that’s new in First Love, which uses conventions galore, but it’s the twists and slants Miike takes on these formulas that make his vision so exciting to watch on-screen.
It’s easy to get a little lost in First Love’s intricate plot, which oscillates between messy and convenient; mapping out how all these characters interact would produce a chaotic network of arrows and sidenotes. However, it’s not the focus Miike intends. His narrative is hardly important; the violent catharsis and ecstatic action sequences take center-stage. It’s a maelstrom of backstabbing, unexpected murder and criminal incompetence. Part of the fun comes from watching a simple plan transform mistake by mistake into an intense Rube Goldberg machine of stray bullets and blood splatters. The spirit of Buster Keaton lives on in First Love, which punctuates its heavy violence with moments of laugh-out-loud slapstick. The movie is brazenly funny, and unexpectedly so, barely hinting at its comic nature until a half-hour in. What’s impressive is how Miike manages to escalate the absurdity—each consecutive sequence is more unhinged than the last until we reach a finale of hilarious mania that works like magic.
That’s not to say First Love isn’t without its quiet moments. Even with the non-stop pacing, Miike and screenwriter Masaru Nakamura find room to explore the human elements of their story. The titular “first love” between Leo and Monica doesn’t amount to much more than a typical boy-meets-girl platitude, but their personal issues do add an unexpected dimension to their journeys. Monica (real name Yuri) is plagued by visions of her abusive father, who appears to her in frightening hallucinations in nothing but a bedsheet and his underwear. Leo, meanwhile, has been diagnosed with a brain tumor after collapsing during a fight, and is facing down his own mortality with a blend of selflessness and reckless abandon. Miike and Nakamura smartly integrate these details into the plot with creative, satisfying callbacks that make sure we’re engaged by more than just the action.