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First Love Film Review: Miike Strikes Back

poster for First Love

In First Love, Miike looks back on his career, embroidering an exquisitely excellent yakuza film and teaching us an important lesson on love, values and what it means to grow up.

Japan’s wild child is back, and he wants to convince us that he has grown a heart of gold. After gifting us with luxuriously gory odd masterpieces such as Ichi the Killer (2001) and 13 Assassins (2010); after spellbinding us with Audition (1999)’s rare-flesh insightfulness into human desire, Takashi Miike is ready to let the buzz of controversy blossom again. Or is he?

In fact, some might say that the Japanese director lost grip on his reality, and that his newly released work First Love (Hatsukoi) is but a pale shadow of the controversial gloriousness for which Miike got to be loved and hated, worshipped and burnt at the stake. First Love is the coming-of-age tale of child-prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi) and rising-star boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota), whose lives entangle as reportedly undercover cop Otomo (Nao Omori) tries to infiltrate the underground alleys of Tokyo’s yakuza. In doing so, Otomo sets in motion a chain reaction of deathly katana duels and sublimely edited gunfights unwinding through the most obscure streets of this city of the damned.

There’s a palatable Scorsesian quality in the all-but-Manichean way in which Miike depicts his crooks and gangsters. Nothing is shadier than the truth, and moral as well as ethical values are just a handy safe shelter to avoid confrontation with the hardest of truths: nothing that we do is morally straightforward, and the only way to be a good person is to open up to others. The defeated heroes can raise from their ashes only if they recognize the narrow-mindedness of their ambitions. Just like in an old-school hard-boiled novel, the plot doesn’t revolve around us finding the culprits and sending them to jail. We already know that we’ll have to expose the whole system if we want to dream sweet dreams again.

The last man (or girl) standing will be the one who has the strength to get rid of his (or her) demons and learn the lesson of love. Here’s when the moon-eyed sweetness kicks in. But sly fox Miike has made amends for this tasteful turnaround with a flowering show of his directorial skills at their very best. It’s no classified information that much of the flair of action movies resides in breathtaking shooting scenes or speed-of-light super-car chasings. We know that’s too spectacularly well-done to be realistic, but we still buy it gladly. Well, I hope you’re looking for some fun here, because Miike is trying hard to break the boundaries of the (un)believable on a silver screen, and he knows how to do it. Watch First Love and you’ll never need a martial arts class again.

First Love: Trailer (Signature Entertainment)

To tell the truth, there is something that feels hyper-real to the point of falseness in First Love. Animated sequences with no substantial contribution to make to the film. Evil sniper ladies that spare the young heroes out of maternal pity. Which, on paper, shouldn’t work. Still, surprisingly enough, Miike drifts from reality to dreams with masterly expertise, managing to end everything on an upward note while delivering a superbly enjoyable acrobatics show. But there’s one last juicy bit in First Love, and I’d love to have you all watch the film because of it.

First Love’s female characters are proper raging bulls, cannon women ready to put everything they love at stake for the sake of honour, private justice, and personal glory – just like male gangsters and mobsters usually do. Miike’s world is evenly balanced, and strangely democratic – rising to a rather chivalresque ending on Leo’s part. Is this a social breakthrough film though? Is this a war of the sexes Hollywood-like movie? No. First Love only has one truth to subscribe to – its truth. Or Takashi Miike’s. Or its characters’. You tell me where the thin red line is supposed to be.

Signature Entertainment presents First Love in Cinemas, on Blu-ray & DVD from 14th February.

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