Next month, the world will get a new Martin Scorsese movie, one that’s already being hailed as a return to his best gangster-movie ways (and even featuring a reliable cast of familiar faces like De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and more). While we await that film’s arrival, consider getting your mafia movie fix with First Love, the latest from prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike (who currently has over 100 credits to his name, according to IMDb). Written by Masa Nakamura, First Love is the kind of crime film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, easily leaning into a self-aware sense of humor and even weaving in elements of a sweet love story (see the title, after all) along the way. If all the pieces don’t fit together at first, give it time; by the end of this wild ride, Miike delivers a sharp, funny adventure that proves just what a pro he is with a camera and a good story.
The first thread of the story we’re introduced to is that of Leo (Masataka Kubota), a promising young boxer who leaves it all on in the ring. His trainer pumps him up, even as we learn that he fights not necessarily out of love for the sport but because he has to, without options for any other way to make a living. When he’s unexpectedly taken down by a swift punch, his doctor informs him they’ve found a tumor in his brain, one they can’t possibly operate on and is most probably fatal. Devastated by the news, Leo wanders into the city streets that night to be alone with his grief.
Meanwhile, on those same city streets, the police arrive in the aftermath of a shoot-out between the Yakuza (Japan’s mafia) and their Chinese rivals; a victim is dead at the scene. Otomo (Nao Ohmori), a detective, puts on a good show, but in no time he’s laughing and drinking with Kase (Shôta Sometani), one of the gangsters involved who’s got another massive drug deal in the works, one that depends on Otomo’s cooperation in order to double-cross both his own crew and his rivals.
And elsewhere, Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young woman from the countryside, wakes up to frightening visions of her abusive father taunting her, hallucinations triggered by withdrawal when she’s not able to get a fix of whatever drug her handlers have her hooked on. When her father couldn’t pay his debts, he sold her instead, and now she’s working as a call girl at the behest of some very shady characters, including a few of the bad actors Kase has in his sights.
All these storylines collide (sometimes literally) to set the real plot of the film in motion; after Leo bumps into Monica on the street, she mistakes him for her childhood crush, immediately attaching herself to this presumably friendly face. Taken by her beauty and victimization, Leo declares he’ll do whatever it takes to save her from her current circumstances, a risk he’s willing to take since he doesn’t have long to live anyway.
If it seems improbable that all these fairly dark storylines can add up to something entertaining, even funny, leave it to Miike (with Nakamura’s strong script) to find moments of levity amidst the drama. Kase in particular is a goof-ball of a baddy, bumbling his way through what’s supposed to be his big break in organized crime. If the comedy sprinkled throughout doesn’t do it for you, the action sequences alone are worth the price of admission, gunfights and car chases aplenty. The narrative may be a bit overstuffed (sometimes it’s hard to remember that, in the middle of all the chaos, Leo and Monica are supposed to be falling in love), but there’s enough cinematic eye candy in Mikke’s latest that fans of his, fans of gangster movies, or just fans of movies in general would find enough to spend a couple of hours with First Love.
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