The last Takashi Miike film I saw was his 2015 slice of bizarre comedy violence Yakuza Apocalypse and having enjoyed that a lot it was great to get a chance to go and see one of his films on the big screen. First Love (2019) is a typically uninhibitedly violent modern-day Yakuza tale which seems to complete the circle by taking some cues from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (which took some cues from Japanese videos).
Miike sets the tone by showing us Leo, a brooding boxer played by Masataka Kubota, training and then fighting in the ring. Meanwhile a gangster has their head cut off by a hitman who keeps his weapons in a golfing bag complete with knitted animal head club covers. We’re then quickly introduced to the other half of the boy-meets-girl story which intertwines with the drug-related crime story in the form of Yuri played by Sakurako Konishi.
Yuri, or Monica as she is known to her clients, is a drug-addicted sex worker held captive by her pimp to pay off her abusive father’s gambling debts. She is haunted not only by her drug addiction but also by hallucinations of her father who appears to her wearing only his underpants and sometimes a bed sheet. Whether he is a ghost or just a figment of her imagination is predominantly left to the viewer to decide. Although it becomes clear that only Yuri can see him.
The other principle characters in this caper are Julie (Becky Rabone) the girlfriend of Yuri’s ill-fated pimp, Kase (Shōta Sometani) a Yakuza underling looking to rip off his gang by stealing the latest supply of drugs from the pimp, and scruffy Otomo played by Nao Ohmori (Ichi the Killer) a bent police detective who agrees to help Kase sell the drugs.
Leo passes out in the boxing ring and after a hospital consultation is told he has an inoperable brain tumour. Told that he should never box again, he has nothing to live for until he meets Yuri on the run from Otomo. He decides to protect her from harm. With not only Otomo, but a vengeful Julie, a desperate Kase, a Yakuza gang and a rival Chinese mob gang converging on them, it’s going to be a bigger job than he perhaps reckoned.
The cartoon violence reaches a heady climax among the shelves of a well-stocked warehouse with bullets flying, guns blazing, swords slicing and dicing, and a bunch of local police parked up outside, too chicken to head on in.
In the middle of all this mayhem Leo checks his phone and sees he has a number of voicemails from the consultant at the hospital. In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, he listens to the messages which gives an apologetic account of a mix-up with the brain scans. The long and short of it is that Leo is perfectly healthy (as a fortune-teller told him earlier in the film) and has plenty to live for – especially since he seems very taken with Yuri.
Whether the animation insert of Leo and Yuri’s eventual escape from the warehouse was a necessity of a limited budget, or whether it was a deliberate nod to the type of Yakuza manga that inspired this story, is beside the point as it fits very well into the more hyper than life action.
With the subsequent death of the last Yakuza standing you might think Miiike would roll the credits, but he wants to remind people that this is also a kind of rom-com and so we see Leo and Yuri embarking on a new life together after she meets her first love, a boy from her past who stood up to her father, and realises that her future lies with Leo and there’s nothing to be gained from looking backwards.