Film / Reviews

'First Love': A heartfelt throwback to the golden age of yakuza flicks

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

Takashi Miike was once the bad boy of Japanese cinema, making straight-to-video low-budget yakuza flicks that were ultra-violent, blackly comic and inventively mad. Films like “Fudoh: The New Generation” (1996) and “Ichi the Killer” (2001), bore little or no resemblance to genre classics about pure-hearted gangsters starring the famously stoic Ken Takakura. Maniacs indulging in torture sessions and killing sprees were more like it.

Miike’s newest film, “First Love,” is an entertaining throwback to the late 1990s and early 2000s when he was cranking out said cheapies in assembly-line fashion. It is also a shout-out to the classics, not surprising given that the film’s studio is Toei, that one-time yakuza movie powerhouse. Does this mean that Miike, who will turn 60 this year, is becoming conservative in his old age?

Not really — the film has plenty of Miike-esque moments, from flying severed limbs to a woman in her underwear running down a crowded street screaming. But it also reflects the nearly two decades Miike has spent making commercial films for hire: Compared to his patchy, brilliant early work, “First Love” is far more polished. It is also something of a retread filled with familiar Miike tropes.

First Love (Hatsukoi)
Rating
Run Time 115 mins.
Language JAPANESE
Opens FEB. 28

Still, “First Love” has a propulsive energy that carries it through the hackneyed bits and a narrative clarity that cuts through the welter of characters and subplots. Similar to many of the classics, the gangster hero’s story is poignant to the point of being sentimental. But his eventual fate is not typical for Toei — and is more satisfying for it.

The protagonist is Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), a talented young boxer who shrugs off his sport as “the only thing I can do.” Then he loses a bout with shocking ease and learns he has a fatal brain tumor.

Cut to Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a drug-addicted prostitute paying off a debt her now-absent father incurred to gangsters. She is the captive of a volatile yakuza, Yasu (Takahiro Miura), and his short-tempered girlfriend Julie (Rebecca Eri Rabone, aka Becky).

Cut again to Kase (Shota Sometani), a conniving hood who joins forces with a crooked cop (Nao Omori), to pull off a big meth deal.

Finally, there is Gondo (Seiyo Uchino), an old-school yakuza who leaves prison to find his gang fighting Chinese mobsters who are encroaching on their turf.

The lives of all these characters — and more — intersect in ways violent and mind-twistingly complex, though the story starts to sort itself out as bodies fall. The ostensible focus is the relationship that haltingly develops between Leo and Monica. He has realized, too late, that boxing is his reason for being, while she finds herself on the run and for the moment free, if still a slave to her addiction.

Both at first impress as nice, easy meat for the human sharks circling around them, which in formula terms marks them as survivors. More fun to watch are Sometani as Kase, who miraculously bests his enemies to his own astonishment, and Becky as Julie, who transforms into a mad woman much like the mythical Furies of ancient Greece, comically bent on revenge.

But the character who best recalls Toei’s glory days is Gondo. He embodies the mostly fictional yakuza code that glorifies self-sacrifice out of loyalty and duty, yet his noblest gesture becomes a splendid visual gag. Miike is still Miike, still bad to the bone.

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