Takashi Miike knows his way around a bait-and-switch, as anyone who’s seen Audition without any foreknowledge can attest. First Love, his latest effort, initially seems like another sadistic fake-out, albeit on a shorter fuse; viewers seeking a tender romance will be confronted with a decapitated head in the first few minutes, well before any hearts start going pitter pat. Even when boy eventually does meet girl, the boy in question has been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumor, while the girl has just escaped yakuza thugs who’ve been forcing her to sell her body and have kept her docile via a raging cocaine addiction. Not exactly The Notebook, then—but as an action-comedy, First Love ranks among Miike’s most purely entertaining movies (out of more than 100 now!), gradually building steam until it reaches a sustained pitch of cheerful insanity. Indeed, the title may refer not so much to the film’s central relationship, which frequently gets overshadowed by violence, as it does to Miike’s own first love: orchestrating mayhem.
Admittedly, some patience is required, as screenwriter Masayoshi Nakamura (with whom Miike’s been collaborating for decades; this is their 11th film together) takes his time setting up numerous characters and subplots that will later converge. There’s a turf war of some sort between Japanese and Chinese drug dealers, which gets further complicated when a brash young yakuza enforcer, Kase (Shôta Sometani), decides to steal a particular shipment and frame Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), a.k.a. “Monica,” the utterly innocent captive. This winds up backfiring in explosive fashion, inadvertently freeing Yuri to literally run into Leo (Masataka Kubota), an up-and-coming boxer who’s just learned that he has only a few weeks to live. Emboldened by certain doom, Leo becomes Yuri’s protector, first decking the corrupt cop who’s working with Kase and then fending off everyone from a semi-ruthless Chinese assassin to the extremely vengeful (bordering on downright crazed) girlfriend of a yakuza member who gets killed early on.
And there’s more! Significantly more, in fact. If First Love starts out a bit slow and expository, that’s only because it has so many wheels to set in motion; part of the fun here involves minor characters you’d completely forgotten about suddenly re-emerging at inopportune moments for our heroes. At a certain point—maybe it’s around the time one character wakes up to find her bed engulfed in flames and instantly throws herself out of a second- or third-story window—the film kicks into high gear and doesn’t slow down again until the epilogue. Miike’s in a playful mood this time around, and not above the occasional truly goofy joke, like shifting to animation out of nowhere for a Fast And Furious-style stunt that he probably couldn’t afford to shoot in live-action. (He also makes an uncomfortable yet still somehow hilarious running gag out of Yuri hallucinating the form of her sexually abusive father.) At the same time, though, Miike seems genuinely, atypically invested in the happiness of the young lovers, ending the film on a quietly lovely note that makes First Love’s title seem sincere rather than cutely ironic. Few directors exhibit this much energy and inventiveness in their first feature. To see it in someone’s 103rd is inspiring.