Japanese auteur Takashi Miike (Audition, Ichi the Killer) has a reputation for scraping away the mask of humanity to reveal the monster underneath. His character-driven studies in depravity and violence keep viewers compelled, walking a tightrope between compulsion to see what happens next and revulsion when that moment comes. In his latest film, First Love, Miike illuminates society’s seedier side once again but softens the narrative’s stark violence with well-plotted comic relief and two young leads who add sweetness — and even hope — to the grim world around them.
The film drops us straight into the action as, in short order, we witness an alleyway beheading, boxing matches and a captive young woman who hallucinates a sinister man wearing a white sheet and tighty-whities. From there, a frenetic plot kicks in as we follow young, aspiring boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota), who suddenly faints during a match and is diagnosed with an inoperable, malignant brain tumor. After a fortuneteller insists he’s in perfect health and advises him to fight for someone other than himself, Leo bumps into Monica (Sakurako Konishi), the young woman we encountered during her hallucination.
It’s a meet-cute for the books since she’s hallucinating (again) and being kidnapped. Despite his disdain for the fortuneteller’s ignorance of his impending death, he decides to rescue her from her bumbling consort for the evening — crooked but lovable cop Otomo (Nao Ōmori), who is working with charmingly psychopathic Kase (Shôta Sometani), a Judas within the Yakuza, to infiltrate a drug deal and make off with the goods, pinning the blame on rival Chinese gang Triad.
This focus is not a new vein for Miike, who has made many a bloody Yakuza-centered crime film before, but First Love succeeds because of its lively humor, which sneaks into even its most gruesome scenes. This movie is fun, and its laugh-out-loud moments are frequently also its most disturbing. Take, for instance, that hallucination of Monica’s, which she can’t seem to escape unless she’s high on drugs. When it assails her on a train, Leo supports her by sharing a song on his iPod with her, and the apparition begins dancing ridiculously (the only way you can dance in tighty-whities). Other laughs come from Julie (Becky), the drug dealer’s girlfriend, who is kidnapped as part of the heist but manages to escape her own murder not once, but twice, in hilariously entertaining ways.
The setting here is the opposite of Tokyo glam. The movie unfolds on or below street level, far from the city’s high-end shopping district. Rather, we’re squarely in working-class territory where neon gambling parlors and noodle shops cast their glow on the actors. Characters walk through streets awash with the greens and yellows of artificial light that create the sense that the city is both endless and suffocating — the product of capitalism, development and technology run amok.
Leo and Monica can’t seem to escape their many pursuers, who track them on GPS, further narrowing their already hemmed-in world. The climactic fight scene between the Yakuza and the Chinese gang happens in what seems to be the Japanese equivalent of a Wal-Mart. Otomo, incredulous, asks, “What is this place?” as he wanders through the aisles, a brand new hard hat from the store perched atop his head.
Some scenes linger a little too long in action or slapstick, and while the budding relationship between Monica and Leo is endearing, Leo is more her protector than her first love, as the title suggests. The Japanese title, Hatsukoi, also translates to “puppy love,” which might be a little more fitting. But these are small quibbles with a delightful, entertaining and, yes, sweet film that ultimately asks some deep questions about bravery, mortality and the importance of true friendship.
Starts Oct. 18 at Grail Moviehouse