Director: Takashi Miike
Stars: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Nao Omori, Shota Sometani, Rebecca Eri Rabone (Becky)
By Stephen Palmer
If you don’t know about Japanese film machine Takashi Miike, then here’s the bluffer’s guide. Over 100 films directed since 1991, with a beat rate of around four features per year. Originally prolific in the world of V-Cinema (think straight-to-video, kinda, sorta), Miike came to International attention with his startling adaptation of Ryû Murakami‘s novel “Audition” in 1999.
Since then he has flitted about all kinds of genres, mixing original works whilst adapting properties as wide-ranging as Korean Black Comedy, Anime and Manga, to even fairly successful Video Game adaptations. More recently, Miike has transitioned from being the Agent Provocateur of Japanese Cinema to pretty much the mainstream. I’ve been a fan of his work for a long time, and can probably confess to seeing half of his output, so I grabbed the opportunity to catch his latest outing with both hands.
“First Love” is a comedy-drama, set in one of Miike’s favourite environments, the world of the Yakuza (Gangster). A promising boxer, Leo (Masataka Kubota), is surprisingly beaten in a contest and is informed it is probably due to an inoperable brain tumour. Whilst walking the streets attempting to process this news, he bumps into drug-addicted sex slave Yuri (Sakurako Konichi) and inadvertently messes up an attempt by a crooked cop and an up-and-coming Yakuza to steal a drug shipment from the local crime family. Along the way, we meet One-armed Chinese crime bosses, deadly female assassins, and murderously unhinged girlfriends, amongst other characters too numerous to list. Somehow, amongst the violence and craziness, the two form a connection with each other, but only if they survive.
If you are a fan of Miike’s genre work, there’s no doubt you’ll be more than satisfied. There’s much of the pre-requisite craziness going on to keep most entertained, and even though there are a large number of characters and sub-plots going on, Miike manages to get most of the plates spinning for the most part.
To me, the most interesting thing before watching the film was that it reunited Miike with screenwriter Masaru Nakamura, who together back in 1998 made the delightful fantasy drama “The Bird People in China”, a little-seen classic that I would highly recommend. This time around, I can’t help feeling the partnership was a little less successful.
If you are a fan of Miike’s genre work, there’s no doubt you’ll be more than satisfied. There’s much of the pre-requisite craziness going on to keep most entertained, and even though there are a large number of characters and sub-plots going on, Miike manages to get most of the plates spinning for the most part. Sadly, however, this does mean that no character really gets enough time in the spotlight, and pretty much every character becomes either a familiar stereotype or an entertaining shade. On the whole, this is no bad thing, but it seriously hurts the central relationship between Leo and Yuri, who get far too little time and dialogue for us to really believe in their burgeoning romance.
Indeed, what this film felt like to me was Miike’s yearning for a simpler time. He’s made plenty of Yakuza films, some sympathetic, some poking fun at the conventions (shiny suits, exotic tattoos, the code of honour). Here he seems to be fearful of how the Yakuza fit in to the modern world, with the younger generation unable to grasp the rules of the game, and under threat from foreign gangs, in this case, the Chinese Triads. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this particular meditation, but it does somewhat overwhelm the narrative.
“First Love” isn’t a bad film by any means. It’s fun and entertaining, just a little overstuffed with ideas and therefore some of the execution fails to deliver.
What I must highlight is one particular performance. Some years ago Rebecca Eri Rabone (who goes by the mononym Becky) was a ubiquitous face in Japanese culture. A caucasian born and bred in Japan, her unique look meant she would get roles as Western characters but with perfect Japanese. Then an unwise affair with a married man ruined her reputation and career opportunities. She publicly repented and has slowly rebuilt her career, but mostly as a Tarento (basically someone who is famous for being famous). This is her first big role in maybe a decade, and by golly does she deliver. Her performance is gloriously unhinged and frankly work the price of admission alone.
“First Love” isn’t a bad film by any means. It’s fun and entertaining, just a little overstuffed with ideas and therefore some of the execution fails to deliver. Miike fans should enjoy it, but in his towering CV, it’s unlikely many will be recalled in in a couple of years.