Fantastic Fest Review: Takashi Miike’s First Love Proves the Yakuza Genre is Worth Fighting For
Who ever came up with the adage “fight like you’ve got nothing to lose” is an idiot. Leo is a boxer, but he’s not a fighter. He can lay out his competitor in the ring and listen to the count with no anticipation - expressionless. When he’s declared the winner he doesn’t even throw up his gloves. Nothing. Just flatness. He gets a terminal diagnosis from his doctor after having a dizzy spell brought on by a weak punch in the ring, and he’s kind of relieved which scares him. What is a life worth when he can let go of it so easily? When he impulsively takes a dubious fortune teller’s advice, he learns first hand what stakes are, and he actually wants to live to tell about it.
Takashi Miike breathes life back into the dying genre of the Yakuza film to tell a romantic comedy of errors with First Love. On a whim Leo (Masataka Kubota) lends an arm - or rather a fist - in defense of a drug-addled prostitute called Monica (Sakurako Konishi) and unwittingly ends up facing down the Yakuza, the Triad, and the cops. Who is really responsible for this cluster fuck? A Yakuza turncoat by the name of Kase (Shôta Sometani) who is stealing a drug deal out from under his boss, Mr. Ichikawa (Jun Murakami), and he is very comfortable with killing to cover his mistakes - which comes in pretty handy considering how sloppy he is. Kubota translates his heartthrob good-looks and empathetic demeanor into a listless, unambitious, quarter-life crisis. Add to that Konishi’s doe-eyed ingenue and you’ve got a couple too endearing to not root for. Even Sometani maintains his quirky, hilarious charm, despite knocking the lights out of a granny.
Many are touting First Love as Miike’s most commercial film to date, but it still has a moment that is so distinctly Miike that fans of Dead Or Alive will stand and applaud. True to form, Miike delivers on the gruesome, bloody violence in spades: heads tumble, stumps spurt, torsos are sliced, shot, stabbed and exploded in the most gratuitous and spectacular fashion. You won’t even feel guilty for laughing because, guess what, they all have it coming. The tone is set in the first ten minutes when some poor sucker’s melon bounces out of a dark alley with an anguished, unfortunate expression. Miike is a maestro of bloodshed and modulating the mayhem over the course of the run-time. The name of the game is theme and variation - Had enough of guns? here are some katanas or machetes, or would an enormous explosion suit you better? - Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Miike orchestrates something bigger, wilder, and a hell of a lot messier.
The greatest triumph of this blood-soaked romantic comedy is that, even with all the death (and there is so much death. Have I mentioned that?), First Love is ultimately a life-affirming, optimistic film. The reason why Yakuza members throw themselves into danger so recklessly is because their success is measured by the money in their pockets and the necks under their boot. Their lives are valued less than the next payday, so why not gamble with it. Leo the boxer is a contrast to Kase the thug. Lackeys like Kase may say they’re loyal to a boss, but in actuality they’re just fighting for themselves. Leo is not getting anywhere by fighting for himself, so he gives fighting for someone else a try and his eyes are opened to whole new barometer for self worth. Once he experiences existence with Monica, he wouldn’t trade it for anything. A life with stakes that high, is a life worth celebrating.