First Love Leo and Monica

First Love Review: Takashi Miike’s Yakuza Date Night

 

Some first loves begin with a glance. Maybe a passing gaze locks the eyes of a future partner and ignites a spark of love at first sight. Sometimes it might be a swipe, or a doodle in a chair. In the case of First Love, however, it all starts with a punch.

 

Sparks fly when down-on-his-luck boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) throws a random punch at a corrupt cop (Nao Omori), Ōtomo. While Ōtomo lands flat on his ass, Monica (Sakurako Konishi), the girl Leo saves when his fateful blow subdues her pursuer, falls head over heels in love. First Love proves that true romance isn’t dead in 2020: people can still find love outside of dating apps. But this film obviously carries the caveat of “don’t try this at home.”

 

Takashi Miike delivers an operatic yakuza bloodbath and unexpectedly great date movie with First Love. This ultra-violent Japanese actioner is a wild ride for fans of Asian action cinema. It’s a love story, a crime drama, and comedy, and a horror show rolled into a blood-soaked riot. Like the most madcap of comedies, Miike’s film features a cavalcade of characters. Each member of the ensemble ups the crazy as the bullets fly and the bodies pile up. The adrenaline rush doesn’t stop.

 

Crazy Trains on a Collision Course

 

First Love is a disorienting ride, so while the action is perfectly tailored for the big screen, it benefits from viewing in a home environment where one can skip back a scene to keep track of all the players. The gist of the film is that it follows Leo on a night when he loses a boxing match and receives some hard news. At the hospital, the neurologist informs Leo that he has an inoperable brain tumour. The young man is despondent and angry. But, then again, a hero with nothing to lose is often the first ingredient for a zany actioner.

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Monica, meanwhile, is on the run from the mobsters who’ve been holding her captive as a sex slave. She’s a pawn in an incomprehensible drug scheme involving Ōtomo and his relentlessly violent partner-in-crime, Kase (Shota Sometani). Throw in the ghost of Monica’s father, who haunts her throughout her frenetic odyssey, and Julie (Japanese musician Becky), the pissed-off girl charged with overseeing Monica’s enslavement, and First Love has multiple crazy trains running towards an inevitable collision. There are also mobsters, cops, crooked cops, assassins, drug dealers, and Chinese triads with scores to settle. Driven by an energetic score and a whirlwind pace, it’s the most action a film delivers in some time.

 

A Love for Yin and Yang

 

The madcap melee provides an unusual first date for Leo and Monica. Leo finds renewed reason to look at the world with hope as he becomes Monica’s protector. Even if his time on Earth is limited, he recognizes that Monica can be saved. Monica, somewhat dim and helpless when we first meet her, learns that agency is key to her survival as she joins Leo in making a getaway, albeit a dirty one.

 

Like many of these riotous romps, however, First Love is all about the baddies. While Leo and Monica are fun anti-heroes, the procession of violent villains steals the show. Shota Sometani is a humorous presence as Kase, an unlikely yakuza who is both a complete doofus and terrifying presence. Unlike Leo, who knows the consequences of violence through his hand-to-hand experience as a boxer, Kase is desensitized to the carnage and leave an indifferent trail of bodies wherever he goes.

 

Julie, on the other hand, is a whole other bag of cats. Fuelled by her desire to get even following her boyfriend’s murder (one of several events that inspire the interconnected hunts for Monica), she knows the cost of violence. She’ll settle for nothing but an eye-for-an-eye reconciliation and her ferociously funny bloodlust fuels her. These sorts of yin-and-yang pairings drive First Love as the film finds harmonious balance in chaos.

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(Im)perfect Date Night

 

The film admittedly proves too unwieldy for its own good at times. The rapid-fire pace of Miike’s film leaves a viewing spinning, although things orient themselves in First Love’s second act once several storylines converge. The beautiful mess of First Love might perhaps be inevitable for a filmmaker like Miike whose output moves at a similar pace. When a director delivers a few features every year, the sheer volume of work lends itself to some roughness around the edges. Miike does something for action films like Alex Gibney does for documentaries. Each film of his is an event, but a less-is-more approach might make each movie a grander occasion.

 

Nevertheless, First Love is far too much fun to leave one hung up on imperfections. The mess is part of the wild ride. It keeps viewers constantly on their feet, breathlessly running alongside Leo and Monica, dodging bullets, and going along for the ride. If your partner calls First Love the perfect date movie, you know you have a keeper.

 

First Love is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital home video.

 



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