The first and least-interesting thing to say about Takashi Miike’s First Love is that, as a crime drama with strong comedic overtones, it’s good. A gripping tale of one night in the world of petty gangsters and international crime syndicates serves as the wicked vortex from which our protagonists Leo and Yuri seek to escape. Leo, an up-and-coming boxer facing certain death, becomes the accidental protector of Yuri, a young woman whose father sold her into sex slavery to a Yakuza clan. As the two are drawn deeper and deeper into the night’s intricate crime plot, they grow close and become companions in their shared feelings of isolation and hopelessness.
Miike’s vast filmography contains multitudes, from psychological horror and tender character studies to yakuza films and parody musicals. What unifies his work is an expert sense for genre-bending and a love of shocking visual and narrative beats, usually in the form of bizarre gore sequences. Those who don’t care for blood and guts need not worry; First Loveis a somewhat-violent but tender examination of social vulnerability and the struggle against one’s feeling of fated doom. The film shows all of Miike’s strengths at once— it’s funny, it’s thrilling, it’s meditative, and it’s even sweet.
I was especially interested to see how it handled Yuri and the subjects of trauma and sexual violence, and more generally its female characters. While I would emphatically not call this a ‘feminist film,’ I do think Yuri’s traumatic situation is treated compassionately. Besides Leo, the only characters who suggest any true depth of feeling or motivation beyond greed or ambition are the film’s (tragically small number of) women characters. And the menace of sexual violence, more or less a given within the often conservative crime genre, occurs in earnest only once before being quickly undermined and shown as despicable. That said, I did take issue with the film’s handling of Yuri’s drug addiction, which played into certain hokey cinematic tropes about what it means to struggle with dependence. Overall, First Love’s handling of its most fraught themes are a mixed bag, but the film is clearly aware of the fact that it’s dealing with themes and problems with a true personal and social weight. That’s more than can be said for a lot of crime movies, and even other Takashi Miike movies.
Miike’s commitment to shocking audiences has evolved and complicated since his ‘90s counterculture heyday. First Love’s greatest shock is its genuine commitment to its protagonists’ anguished interior lives. Miike transforms its first act constellation of crime and deception into a story about familial abandonment and the spiritual and social costs of violence on the disempowered and disenfranchised. The film’s grand thematic statement comes at the halfway mark when Leo says to Yuri “It’s tough, but funny, isn’t it? Funny, but painful.” At its most beautiful, First Love locates something like freedom in the connections we form with others against the wickedness of the world.