The tongue-in-cheek apology with which mega-prolific Japanese mischief maker Takashi Miike introduced the premiere of his latest madcap mashup in Cannes — “I want to apologize for making such a sweet love story with no violence and no decapitations” — was proved almost instantly to be a joke, as within the first few minutes of “First Love,” a surprised head is summarily and gorily sundered from its owner’s body. Though the irrepressible Miike, whose 2017 “Blade of the Immortal” is canonically accepted as his 100th film, does loosely build movie No. 103 around a sweet little love story, he spares no mayhem in the process. “First Love” may be a fluffier, more eager-to-please bauble than Miike’s more challengingly outré titles, but like the cutesy mechanical toy puppy that turns up yapping in the middle of the film, it is wired to explode, and it is a blast.
Shuffling their deck of genre archetypes, Miike and regular screenwriter Masara Nakamura deal out a hand that could be lifted straight from a ’50s pulp paperback. Solitary young boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) trains in his gym and later wins his fight with a stunning knockout blow. But his sclerotic trainer is not satisfied: Why doesn’t Leo display any triumphalist emotion when he wins? His diagnosis is simple: Leo fights well but is not fighting for anything, or anyone. Leo accepts the tongue-lashing wordlessly and slopes off to his menial day job. And then a routine medical checkup reveals a brain tumor.
Leo had little to live for, and now he’s dying — as an abandoned orphan (and have no fear that Miike, alive as ever to the potential of a provocative image, won’t insert a flashback to a litter-strewn alleyway where a discarded baby squalls amid piles of garbage) he has no family. He needs a mission, and one appears in the appealing form of Yuri (Sakurako Kanishi), a literally haunted young woman forced into prostitution for a local gang boss to pay off her wastrel father’s debts.
Despite the grimness of her circumstances, and the drug addiction into which her captors have lured her, Yuri projects the dewy innocence of a princess trapped in an enchanted forest. But if her paper-thin characterization as a trembling ingenue in need of rescue begins to grate on your feminist sensibilities, here comes her opposite number Julie (Becky Rabone), the girlfriend of the gangster henchman who was Yuri’s erstwhile guard/pimp, who turns out to be a smirking, death-dealing badass with a nice line in death-by-sword. All of these desperate characters are caught up in a bigger plot involving a lot of money, a lot of drugs and the wannabe-Machiavellian, actually super-dumb intrigues of hoodlum Kase (Shota Sometani) as he jockeys for power and tries to play his criminal boss against a rival mafioso and the corrupt cops ginning up the works in between.
For sure, none of this is anything you haven’t seen before, most of it in one or several Takashi Miike films. However, the sheer kinetic momentum Miike builds up, the none-too-overdone stylish gore and the relative coherence of a storyline that is, very broadly speaking, plausible (as opposed to the all-out gonzo surreality that Miike has dealt in before), make this one of his most accessible, and purely enjoyable films. The daftest flourish is the conception of Yuri’s haunting by her abusive father, which is gleefully and in ever-dubious taste played for laughs. Perhaps a product of Yuri’s addiction withdrawal, the “ghost” is imagined as a very unterrifying middle-aged man shuffling around after her wrapped in a classic Halloween-ghost white sheet. At one point, he even dad-dances.
DP Nobuyasu Kita and editor Akira Kamiya are equally to thank for the clarity of the film’s many action sequences, which are cut and choreographed with remarkable precision, something that Miike makes look as easy as falling off a log and then being decapitated by it. And those sequences embellish a tall tale that just about hangs together if we understand the basic pulp foundational truth: No one, aside from our chaste, star cross’d central duo, has anything but the most selfish and ruthless of intentions, and that makes them eternally, satisfyingly deserving of whatever inventively grisly fate Miike can conceive for them.
So “First Love” has a Screenwriting 101 plotline, delivered by a panoply of stock characters. But that simply means Miike doesn’t have to slow down to help us catch up. The director is on record saying he feels most at home on a movie set, which is good, because that’s presumably where he’s spent the vast majority of his adult life. And somehow, here that sheer joy in the process of shooting — of finding ways to stage and execute scenes visually, of problem-solving and thinking on your feet — transmits itself into this otherwise proudly escapist film, almost giving it depth (apologies to Miike, who might well be horrified by that accusation). Hard-boiled and soft-hearted, peopled by characters who are fast with their fists and slow with their wits, “First Love” is mostly remarkable for renewing once again the apparently infinitely renewable resource that is Miike’s filmmaking energy. On this evidence, who’s to say he won’t become feature directing’s first bicentennial man.