First love is a perfect example of a film that borrows elements from others in its field and creates something that’s entirely its own. The film borrows heavily from the ultra-violent action sequences of a Tarantino flick, the stylish neo noir aesthetic of a Michael Mann production and mixes each of these elements with Takashi Miike’s ferocious sensibility and inimitable creativity.
The yakuza crime thriller is arguably the sub-genre that cemented Takashi Miike’s reputation as one of the most infamous filmmakers to rise from Japanese cinema. Time and time again, Miike constantly finds a way to create new hybrids and variations of the genre, blending the raw, noirish and occasionally over the top nature of the yakuza flick with other genres of cinema, the most notorious example being the yakuza/horror hybrid Ichi the killer. Upon first viewing, the film is marketed simply as a love story wrapped in a yakuza narrative. However, there is no doubt that the films primary genre is a yakuza picture, with a love story as a secondary premise. Although the film is overrun with its untamed violence and gonzo destruction, none of it takes away from the complex themes and interesting characters that elevates the film to new heights of genre cinema.
Aside from the gonzo violence and dark humour that brings a signature energy to the narrative, the film also provides a surreal mood that gives the picture a dream like sensibility, reminiscent to that of a David lynch flick. The most obvious example of these surrealist elements being used to full effect, are the moments in which Yuri, the love interest of the protagonist, constantly envisions her father stalking her across Tokyo. Due to her troubled past, in which her father physically abused her as a child, Yuri’s mental health has deteriorated and is resorted to her being haunted by incidents of the past, adding the theme of mental health and psychological destruction to the bizarre narrative.
One particular scene that demonstrates mental health in a surreal manner, is the scene on the bus after Leo and Yuri escape her abusive captors. During the bus ride, Yuri envisions her father standing directly next to the entrance of the bus, menacingly glaring at her. Noticing that she is deeply distressed, Leo attempts to calm her by playing music for her. However, this act of innocence only increases the level of distress, as the father begins to dance as soon as the music plays, reducing Yuri to tears. Through this moment, the spectator is able to understand the devastating effect the past has on Yuri and can begin to comprehend the mental state of the character. Furthermore, the scene conveys the amount of depth surrealism provides to the story and characters, showcasing Takashi Miike’s skill in enriching the narrative through competent direction.
Another theme that is heavily prevalent throughout First Love is the theme of betrayal. In the film, the theme of betrayal is the primary motive that sets the entire story in motion and causes the two protagonists to form a relationship. Kase, a yakuza enforcer, and Otomo, a corrupt cop, are both planning to bust a drug shipment directed to the yakuza in order to keep the drugs for themselves and betraying the yakuza council as a result.
However, their plan goes terribly wrong, after Leo interferes, with him and Yuri fleeing with the drugs. The twist of fate that occurs when Leo enters the picture conveys to the spectator that betrayal never ends well for the characters, as the awful attempt to convert from the yakuza hierarchy only introduces a series of new dilemmas for Kase and Otomo. Furthermore, the fact that the act of betrayal coincidentally brings Leo and Yuri into the equation shows that betrayal has a huge effect on others in the film, as it unwillingly drags innocents into the already dire situation.
Although certain characters are given depth simply through visual traits and interesting iconography, there are few exceptions to that matter, the most obvious being Leo. Through the opening few minutes, the spectator is immediately given a clear understanding to Leo’s character. He begins the film as a talented young boxer who excels at the sport but lacks a reasonable motive to drive him to continue pursuing the sport. In addition, Leo soon discovers that he has a serious brain tumour that he highly doubts he will survive. It is the introduction of the brain tumour that defines Leo’s character throughout the rest of the film, due to the fact that he doesn’t fear anything because he knows that he will inevitably die. the inclusion of the brain tumour, plus his newfound love for Yuri, both provide meaning to Leo’s life, as each factor begins to build him back up into the passionate boxer he once was by the end of the movie.
Furthermore, the ending of the picture conveys a sense of irony, as the vicious, chaotic nature of the action sequences somehow improves Leo’s state of mind and provides him with a sense of dangerous adventure that he’s been seeking all along. When he discovers halfway through the final battle that he doesn’t in fact have a brain tumour, Leo feels a new sense of purpose that’s been brought to his life as a result of the untamed chaos, feeling as though his near death experience has built upon his confidence significantly.
In conclusion, First Love is a highly stylized, ultraviolent, action romp that is sure to please fans of classic Takashi Miike insanity and exposes his obsessive love and undeniable passion for the yakuza subgenre to a new generation.