Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Morning Light Doesn't Suit the Wicked
Takashi Miike’s Blade of the Immortal was one of my favorite films while attending Fantastic Fest in 2017, so it’s no surprise that his latest film First Love was not only my first film at Fantastic Fest 2019 but also a contender for one of the best films of the entire film festival. Debuting as a filmmaker in 1991, Miike has directed over 100 productions (theatrical, video, and television), but First Love may be Miike’s most entertaining film to date.
Leo (Masataka Kubota, Tokyo Ghoul) is a talented young boxer with a ton of potential. He takes a fall after a light jab to the face during a random fight and is suddenly diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and an inevitable expiration date. Meanwhile, Monica (Sakurako Konishi) is a prostitute that works for the yakuza. Monica’s father has a massive debt that Monica is left paying off. Her addiction to meth keeps the hallucinations of her father chasing her in his underwear at bay, but she hasn’t had a hit in a while and suddenly her mostly-naked father is popping up on every street corner.
Kase (Shôta Sometani) is a member of the yakuza that is sick of not getting his fair share of things. He strikes up a deal with dirty cop Otomo (Nao Ohmori, Ichi the Killer) where they’ll steal a ton of drugs from the yakuza, blame its disappearance on known meth head Monica, and split the massive profits between them. Monica’s involvement is foreseen, but Leo is dragged into it when he thinks he’s doing something chivalrous. Now all their paths cross in one insane, bloody, and laugh out loud night in Tokyo.
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I’ve generally enjoyed the majority of Miike’s works, but his fascination with rape and the treatment of women in his earlier films is really off-putting sometimes. First Love teases that Miike hasn’t learned anything after nearly 30 years as a filmmaker, but then totally goes in a direction Miike hasn’t ever explored. Look no further than Julie (Becky/Rebecca Eri Rabone) a total badass female whose sole purpose is vengeance. Julie is the complete opposite of a damsel in distress. She beats men and women within an inch of their lives and usually with just her bare hands. She has a mouth that brutalizes as much as her fists with a scream that makes grown men cower. She has some of the hardest hitting action sequences in First Love.
First Love is also Miike’s most amusing film to date. Miike was in attendance at Fantastic Fest 2019 and did a Q&A after the film. He’s incredibly sarcastic and rather hilarious in person, so it’s a welcome change of pace to see more of that translate on-screen. Kase is the main source of comedic relief in the film. Shôta Sometani is hilarious with his dialogue delivery, drastic raising of his voice to sound more angry and more Japanese, gobsmacked facial expressions, and insistence on touching himself inappropriately after meth is spilled all over the crotch of his pants.
Takashi Miike unleashes this refined, matured, and sleeker version of himself with First Love. With shades of Baby Driver, a jazzy score that echoes what The Seatbelts accomplished with the music for Cowboy Bebop, and a brief animated transition that is exceptionally cool, First Love takes the ultra violence Miike is known for and allows those violent moments to breathe. The blood splatter is accentuated by flawed characters struggling with their own definition of feeling alone and a surprising dose of hilarity that is unbelievably entertaining.
© 2019 Chris Sawin