First Love

First Love (Hatsukoi) (2019)

First Love (Hatsukoi) first published by Little White Lies

“Things are getting complicated,” young low-ranking yakuza Kase (Shōta Sometano) tells corruptible police detective Otomo (Nao Ômori, Ichi from Takashi Miike‘s 2003 Ichi the Killer) near the beginning of Miike’s latest, First Love (Hatsukoi). As Gondo (Seiyô Uchino), the boss of Kase’s syndicate, returns from a stint in prison to reassume the reins, and everyone is distracted by internecine strife with the Chinese Triads, Kase is plotting to steal a bag of crystal meth from his own people, and to pin the blame on Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a traumatised young woman who has been drugged and forced into prostitution to pay off the debts of her abusive father.

Things are about to get a whole lot more complicated in this Coën-esque clusterfuck of a movie. Unwittingly introducing the chaos is Leo (Masataka Kubota), an up-and-coming boxer who, abandoned as a child, is a loveless loner with nothing to live for – a status that is crystallised when he is informed that he has a terminal tumour on his brain. This passionless pugilist happens upon the distraught Monica and inadvertently rescues her from her predicament – and so starts a long night of crossed purposes, unpredictable behaviours and hard-hitting encounters, all culminating in a multi-aisle tool-store free-for-all wherein heads will roll.

Directed with Miike’s typical verve, First Love unfolds a crazily complicated story, full of intersecting, contradictory motives and wildcard characters – the latter including vengeful moll Julie (played by Becky) who does a mean impersonation of the vindictive Kayako Saeki from the Grudge films, and delivers the tone-setting line, “I want to kill! Everybody, let’s kill!” Yet it is never hard to follow this large ensemble’s overlapping escapades,with editor Adita KIamiya using effective match cuts to link (and parallel) the different narrative trajectories. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) is evoked not just by the pulpish nature of the interwoven subplots, but also more specifically by the pitting of a boxer against gangsters. 

Leo is the first character we meet in First Love, and the film’s heart and soul, as learning that he will die also teaches him to live. In different ways, he and Monica are haunted by their histories – in Monica’s case, the ghost is a recurring hallucination of her bespectacled father dressed ridiculously in his underwear (like the Minotaur in Miike’s 2003 Gozu). To escape the prisons of their pasts, both must fight their way out, whether their opponent is addiction, emotional stagnation or an armed criminal. Along the way, Miike slyly undermines the stereotypes of the Yakuza as honourable and the Triads as honourless, The ensuing mishmash of comedy and romance, existentialism and ultraviolence never goes in the direction expected, and plays out its life-and-death themes in deliriously cartoonish fashion – literally so, in one animated sequence. This is a high-energy caper with lots of larger-than-life characters circling to kill, and two innocents at its centre about whose fate and very survival, against all odds, we are made genuinely to care.

Anticipation: Love Miike (sometimes)

Enjoyment: Holy… wait… wtf?

In Retrospect: A double-crossing, criss-crossing caper, fatalistic and fun.

© Anton Bitel