Orphaned boxer Leo grows up to be an up-and-coming star in the sport. After losing a match by TKO from a soft punch, Leo is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that sends himself into despair. In another part of town, the established yakuza and the imported Chinese mafia boil toward an inevitable war over turf and drugs. When Kase, a junior enforcer, betrays his yakuza family, scheming with a crooked cop to steal drugs for profitable gain, the tide turns blood red as the yakuza naively blames the Chinese. Caught in the middle is a drug addicted prostitute named Monica, a slave to the yakuza for her father’s past mishaps, who is kept locked away in a small apartment overseen by a yakuza lackeys, romantic couple Yasu and Julie, that also use the apartment to control drug flow. When Kase plan to raid the apartment and steal the drugs goes array, Yasu winds up dead and Monica escapes, running into Leo who has nothing left to live for except to protect Monica. A distraught-induced psychotic Julie, the deadly yakuza, the Chinese Mafia, a double-crosser and his crooked cop partner, a delusional girl of the night, and one apathetic boxer clash in a single night’s ultraviolet web.
Extreme Japanese auteur Takashi Miike fastens a lively tongue-and-cheek and supremely savage crime thriller in his latest mad yakuza film, amiably entitled, “First Love,” also known “Hatsukoi.” “First Love” is anything but friendly and pleasant as the street of Tokyo run red with blood or else the 2019 released film wouldn’t be a Takashi Miike trademark special. Penned by Miike’s long time collaborator, Masa Nakamura, the filmmaker’s affection for horror eludes this title that hones more toward the unpleasantries of clan betrayals, snarky criminal shenanigans, and, of course, a flavor for mega violence that become a maelstrom angrily surrounding a demoralized boxer and the victimized forced-into-prostitution young woman he aims to selfishly protect while in his mental clout regarding his mortality. Produced by OLM, Inc production company headquartered in Tokyo takes a step away from manga with “First Love,” a step that has been evolved over the last few years, but may have contributed to some of the illustrated content that seemingly has infiltrated into the third act with an initial explosiveness in the beginning portions of a car chase scene.
Cast as Leo Katsuragi, the boxer, is Masataka Kubota, a familiar face from another Miike film, “13 Assassins,” and most recently from the heavily Japanese cultured specter feature, ‘Tokyo Ghoul.” Leo’s lighter weight physique and fresh face has Masataka look the part of a promising fighter whose positioned for fame early into the story, but that framework comes to a screeching halt when he’s destined for a tumorous death. When Leo is coupled with Monica, a drug addicted forced in prostitution plagued with crippling hallucinations side effects, the repressed Leo finds himself sheltering someone with more burden on her shoulders than upon his own. Monica’s portrayed by Sakurako Konishi in what’s essentially her first major role and being paired as a scared, lonely, and crazy character coupled with a stoic vet in Masataka makes for an easy dynamic. Shôta Sometani’s chin deep in trouble Kase goes without saying that Sometani’s unfathomable range and charisma adds an aloof comic relief along with Kase’s dishonest detective slipped covertly into by “Ichi the Killer” himself, Nao Ohmori and pursued by a retribution spirited girlfriend, Julie, of her slain yakuza boyfriend; a role spearheaded with such energy and gusto from Rebecca Eri Rabone, credited solely as Becky, who has a slight Cynthia Rothrock vibe. “First Love” is no slave to boorish performances from Takahiro Miura (“Shin Godzilla”), Cheng-Kuo Yen, Sansei Shiomi, and Mami Fujioka.
“First Love” emerges as a smart and fun battle royal of decimation in the anarchist criterion. One would think a prolific director such as Takashi Miike would wear out his welcome with tired and stale filmic bread, crumbling with every soggy rinse and repeat. That’s not the case with “First Love.” Why is it entitled “First Love” anyway, you ask? The question’s open for viewer interpretation, much like most of Miike’s suggestive elegant style, and presents an illuminating unexplored journey in itself. A ventured guess would be that Leo and Monica have never experienced the feeling previously in either content or a labored life with Leo being an impassive athlete and Monica an escort since high school. The corollary of bumping into each other by chance results in the unorthodox dismantling of two rival criminal organizations, baring then an age-old theme of love conquers all and renders the mystics of destiny fueled from from within all the way easter egging sexual taboos inside his brazen, sometimes insane, transgression storyline. Either way, Takashi Miike helms a tremendous brutal-comedy that brands him as being the Martin Scorsese of Japanese filmmaking.
Blades, guns, and a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes, “First Love” has mainstream aptitude with a carnage driven crime syndicate finesse and is now available on a two-disc, dual format Blu-ray and DVD release from Well Go USA Entertainment. Encased in a slipcover, the not rated feature is presented in full HD, 1080p, and in a widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio. This review will focus it’s review on the Blu-ray quality. Much of Miike’s style is neo-noir basking in very grounded color palette that’s occasionally adorned by the neon brights of Tokyo. Often does Miike composite in his work and “First Love” is no exception with a brief manga nearly a rallying ending; the illustration is super sharp, a visual pop of blue and white, and, obviously, clean. Ultra-fine details add to a prizing fatalism and even the tasteful gore, on a granular level, passes the screen test. Some scenes appear sleeker than others inside a dark scope coded with darker shades of green and yellow, but the overall result smothers any kind of inconsistency. The Japanese and Chinese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio tracks savor every last audiophile morsel. The clear dialogue renders nicely, big effects and action sequences offer a wide range, and the depth covers more than enough ground surrounded by hustle and bustle of the urban element. Kôji Endô’s enchantingly lethal score will immerse you right into the mix and provide a slick culture twist upon classical composition. The English subtitles are well paced and mostly accurate as I did catch one grammatical mistake. Incased inside a slight embossed titled cardboard slipcover, the release also offers a teaser and a theatrical run trailer. Cynical on the surface and romantically submersible to the core, “First Love” is a Takashi Miike instant favorite of amusing antagonism and shorn almost completely of genial garments.