Takeshi Miike has directed some classic films, but I am here to talk to you about his latest film FIRST LOVE or HATSUKOI. First off, be aware that this is not a horror film in the standard sense. It has some horror trappings, but it is mostly a (great) crime film that centers on the abandoned children of bad parents. There’s a lot of grief in the film, but a lot of humor too, so it balances out.
A young boxer (Masataka Kubota as Leo) who is untouchable because he has nothing to live for finally gets knocked out and hurt in the ring. While getting checked out for the injury, he gets a diagnosis that tells him he is going to die. After this, he gets a card reading from a psychic that tells him he is in perfect health and in his disgust and anger, he storms off and sees a girl being dragged away by an older man. He helps the girl (Sakurako Konishi as “Monica”) and gets thrown into a private and very violent war between rival Yakuza and Triad syndicates. While he doesn’t know the girl, he is a decent man and his impending death makes him braver than he ever thought he could be so he does everything he can to help and protect her. He and the young girl, who was sold into trafficking to a drug dealer by her own father, begin to form a tentative bond and know a kindness and love that neither has experienced before.
I believe that the title refers to the fact that the two main characters, Leo and “Monica”, are not just experiencing the meet-cute, first love of young people, but that they are experiencing, with the affection and caring that grows between them, the first love of any kind that they have felt in their young lives. It’s a lot bigger than the title might imply at first glance. Monica is a terribly abused young woman who is forced to turn tricks to pay off her terrifying father’s debt after he sold her to the drug dealer she works for and left. She has hallucinations of her father dancing menacingly in his underwear and takes the drugs the dealer has to ward them off. She is in such torment with post-traumatic stress that I think that the drug-induced haze and the mistreatment of the dealer, his girlfriend, and the men who buy her is a cakewalk in comparison. I believe she was probably sexually abused by her father. She is trying to escape the only way she can and has very little interest in living. Leo was literally abandoned next to a trash can by his unknown parents and is only going through the motions of life. He has a job, but his only interest is boxing, possibly because of the punishment it requires him to take and deal out to others. He has no reason to live because he feels that he is unwanted and uncared for. He is simply walking forward until he is struck down. This meeting gives them both something to live for.
The performances have great depth and I must commend the director Takashi Miike and the actors for the range of different characters and the emotional blood they leave on the ground as well as the comedy that they bring to their roles. The truly honorable Chinese Triad leader and his female henchman are touching in their dedication to that honor and desire for revenge. The Japanese Yajuza businessmen who are all about the business with such great stone faces. The Japanese gang member/betrayer who is out for himself and cannot help but make you laugh with his clownish and hapless attempts to take the money for himself. He’s really terrible, but at every turn he is one of the funniest and most genuine physical comedians I have seen in a long time. He’s not waiting for the laugh and he’s so weirdly adorable that you can’t hate him even though he’s really a selfish shit. The insane girlfriend of the drug dealer who is so filled with rage that she resembles a Terminator in her desire to punish the people who hurt the man that she clearly loved, but never trusted. The tired and jaded Japanese cop who gets dragged into the scheming and decides to give up on his profession to score some money.
This film is not only an excellent addition to Asian crime or Yakuza cinema, but it is also a rip-roaring comedy with a big beating heart. Takashi Miike is a master. He balances crime and action with the delicate matters of the heart. For a director to effortlessly handle all of this in one film is a spectacular feat. This is a must see film. It also has some of the greatest ending credits or cast listing that I have ever seen. Miike knows how to cast for great faces and emotional depth and proves it with FIRST LOVE. FIRST LOVE will debut on Digital, Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD on February 11, 2020.