First Love (3 stars)

First Love

Japanese director Takashi Miike's 103rd film sees love blossom amidst gang warfare

Prolific, genre-warping Japanese director Takashi Miike returns to the world of the yakuza after forays into fantasy (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure) and samurai swordplay (Blade of the Immortal). As much a love story as a Tokyo-set tale of bloody gang strife, this wry night-in-the-life thriller sees a chance encounter plunge laconic young boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) and drug-addled prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi) into a turf war between the yakuza and their Chinese triad rivals.

Add in a corrupt cop and a plot to steal a stash of drugs that goes fatally awry, thanks to Leo's unwitting intervention, and a claret-soaked comedy of errors is unleashed. Time is running out for Leo in more ways than one when he takes Monica under his wing, and their burgeoning relationship is a refreshing respite from the mayhem occurring elsewhere.

Kubota and Konishi are convincingly cute as the couple on the run, and Shôta Sometani also makes a name for himself as the Machiavellian hood whose scheme to rob his own gang is the catalyst for the havoc that follows. Monica's hallucinatory visions of her abusive father (in Y-fronts, no less!) and a dash of animation are characteristic of Miike's playfulness. And, of course, there are shoot-outs, car chases and swordplay aplenty. But the veteran director's 103rd film is also gentler and more melancholy than grisly gangster bloodbaths like Yakuza Apocalypse or Ichi the Killer. Both Leo and yakuza bigwig Gondo (Seiyô Uchino, like Kubota an alumnus of samurai slice-and-dicer 13 Assassins) are pondering their lot in life, with the latter's recognition of the fading of the light for the yakuza particularly potent.

It's a slow build and not prime-cut Miike, but the killer twists and turns, and a Free Fire-like climax in a hardware store – involving a doped-up yakuza impervious to pain, a crowbar-wielding moll out for vengeance, and a one-armed swordsman handy with a pump-action shotgun – are worth the journey.

Limited release from Fri 14 Feb.

First Love

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • Directed by: Takashi Miike
  • Cast: Becky, Sakurako Konishi, Masataka Kubota

Young boxer Leo (Kubota) and drug-addled prostitute Monica (Konishi) find themselves in a turf war between the yakuza and the triads. A claret-soaked comedy of errors, gentler and more melancholy than some of Miike’s previous 102 films; the main couple are convincingly cute and it’s worth the journey.