First Love [Hatsukoi] (2019) Review

Leo is a promising boxer who is about to come face-to-face with his own mortality after an unexpected loss in the ring. He’s also about to come face-to-face with drug-addled escort Monica, who’s been hired for the night by corrupt cop Otomo who’s in cahoots with Yakuza Kase, the two of them intending to hijack the Yakuza’s own shipment of drugs from Monica’s handler Kasu.

Add to this the arrival of a Yakuza boss fresh from a stint in prison and growing tensions between the Japanese gangsters and a rival Triad gang and the scene is set for gory, comedic carnage during one wild night on the streets of Tokyo. With me so far? Good.

I should also mention that Kasu’s partner Julie is particularly prone to dishing out extreme violence and she is not at all chill about the whole thing. Oh, and Monica experiences hallucinations of her dad wearing not much else but his underpants. If you’ve seen previous Takashi Miike fare such as Yakuza Apocalypse you’ll appreciate that I am clearly not making up plot points such as this.

Oh, I almost forgot, there’s a one-armed swordsman as well. How could I not mention him?

With over one hundred directing credits to his name Miike redefines the word prolific and you’d been forgiven for thinking that with so much output there may be less regard to the work in terms of quality. Not so, because even lesser Miike works are generally interesting or jaw-droppingly bizarre or both. This guy is rarely, if ever, on autopilot.

Miike first appeared on my radar with 1999’s infamous Audition, which still makes me go into a cold sweat when I think of “kirikirikiriikiri” (you’ll know exactly what I mean if you’ve watched it). Since then I’ve seen a fair few of his films and although they don’t always hit the mark there’s almost always something distinctive and engaging about them.

So, in the pantheon of Miike movies, where does First Love land? Well, it’s not a stone-cold classic in the Audition mould as its crime story set-up is a little too generic but it’s still a ton of fun, introducing its many characters in a slick, assured fashion before dropping them into the expected mix of double-crosses, fights, chases and shootouts.

Yes, it could be said that the two characters at the centre of it all – Leo and Monica – are almost rendered peripheral as they’re swept up in the escalating mayhem (and there’s a reasonably long stretch of the movie where they disappear form the proceedings entirely) but they’re always the over-riding constants as the plot threads of the various parties inevitably intertwine, culminating in an almighty scrap involving guns, swords and anything else to hand. This all takes place in what I can only say looks like the Tokyo version of B&Q but the only 25% off these people will be getting is a swift, brutal reduction in their total number of limbs.

It’s violent, it’s bloody, but it’s also so hyper-stylised and over the top that it’s not going to have you reaching for the sick bucket. Most of this is played for black comedy and in the main it works very well indeed, the performances matching the general level of craziness. In particular, Shôta Sometani’s laid-back, cocky young buck Kase steadily reveals the coked-up nutjob within the deeper he gets into the film and he’s one of the highlights here, as is Becky as Julie who, let’s be honest, loses her shit a lot quicker than anyone, leading to a brief but terrific scene in which she’s charging down a street, revenge clearly on her mind.

As the de facto leads of the piece, Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi rein their performances in and provide the quieter moments, well, when Leo isn’t smacking or shooting folk, that is. Their interactions are rather sweet and it’s good to see that although there’s an initial affinity between their characters they’re still wary of each other and it takes the shared experience of the night – and, by that token, most of the movie – for their relationship to develop.

Also, if you’ve been frustrated at the way some Miike films stop dead right before what you think is going to be the big finish – Yakuza Apocalypse was a particularly good example of me settling back for the ultimate smackdown and then being confronted by the credits – First Love resolves its plot in a surprisingly conventional and satisfying way.

Perhaps it’s a little too languid between the culmination of the carnage and the eventual fade to black but it’s just about earned and I’m not going to begrudge a little extra time for breath to be caught after the spectacular showdown of the previous twenty minutes. Miike has made a crowd—pleaser of a movie bridges the gap between his relatively straightforward pics and his flat-out bizarre efforts, deftly bouncing the spotlight across its various characters without losing focus. Its more outrageous flourishes mean it’s still some way from the mainstream but set that wariness of weirdness aside and enjoy an energetic, gore-splashed, often hilarious blast.

Oh, and watch for the scene where Kase discovers Julie’s “roommate”.

Signature Entertainment presents First Love in Cinemas, on Blu-ray & DVD from 14th February

Movie Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Trailer:

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Darren Gaskell

Darren is a writing machine, producing content for a range of channels. You can catch more of his content at The Strange Colour Of Deej's Reviews and The Horrocist. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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