Prolific director Takashi Miike is a living legend. Yes, his diverse oeuvre may have its fair-share of half-assed films – not that he cares, every Japanese film lover has a bunch of Miike’s movies that he or she loves and loves to revisit. First Love, a Miike-esque genre-blender, might well be another film these Japanese film lovers can add to their list of favourite Miike movies.
[Now screening in Japanese theaters]
After a surprising loss in the ring, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), a promising young boxer, is forced to take a brain-scan at the clinic. The results are unexpected. His doctor (Kenichi Takitoh) tells him he has a brain tumor and that he has no other option to quit boxing.
While aimlessly wandering in Tokyo, Leo is suddenly passed by drug-addict and prostitute Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who is trying to shrug of her pursuer. Her cry for help, while not aimed at anyone in particular, catches his attention and, in a flash of a moment, he knocks out her pursuer, the dirty cop Otomo (Nao Omori).
Unbeknownst to him, his punch disrupts the carefully planned out plot of the small-time yakuza Kase (Shota Sometani) to rob his own clan of a shipment of meth. Suddenly, he finds himself entangled in a war between the yakuza and the Chinese triad.
Even though Takashi Miike’s First Love offers hilarious moments of comedy, subtle romance, and a satisfying amount of violence and gore, First Love should be read, first and foremost, as a humanistic narrative. Paradoxical as it may seem, Masaru Nakamura’s screenplay is all about how important others are for the subject to be able to give meaning to one’s own life.
Leo Katsuragi’s position, even before receiving his diagnosis, is a position devoid of desire and true meaning. While it is true that his boxing structures his entire life and maps out his daily life, boxing appears to have no subjective meaning for him – it is the only thing he can do, not the only thing he wants to do. Leo finds himself, in fact, in a rather paradoxical position: boxing defines his ego, but, as subject, he is not invested in boxing at all.
The diagnosis Leo receives changes everything, but not only because it confronts Leo with his mortality – an operation is, in fact, still among the possibilities. The brain tumor changes everything because it disallows Leo from boxing. Without boxing, Leo’s life loses its structure and the minimal meaning that this structure installed. Result: our promising boxer turns into a depressed aimless wanderer.
Monica’s initial position is a position of dependence, a dependence on drugs. The social bonds she has with others are, at least before she meets Leo, solely mediated by her need for the product. Only when she needs drugs, she will actively address herself to the other. The hallucinations of her abusive father that plague her when withdrawal sets in, for that matter, always initiates a flight-reaction. Monica’s attempts to outrun the hallucinated presence of her abusive father subtly implies that, for her, drug- consumption is a way to quell the trauma of long-term abuse.
Given both protagonists position – and due to the fact this is a romance story, it is interesting to analyze how our two protagonists fall in love with each other. In Monica’s case, her love is born when Leo knocks out her pursuer Otomo (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2). But Monica’s love is not for Leo, but, surprisingly, for someone called Ryuji. In Monica’s hallucination, Leo has become the psychical support of the image of Ryuji, her former classmate who once punched her father. If Monica falls in love with Leo, it is first and foremost because she is able to love Ryuji in him. This love, while contaminated, installs a radically different relation – between Leo and Monica, the product as exchange object plays no role.
Monica’s contaminated love for Leo is, furthermore, caused by a misunderstanding of what his act of protection means. While Monica reads his protective act as an act expressing his desire to protect her, Leo’s punch was devoid of such desire. He did not respond to her demand – which was, in truth, a demand of love – because he had a desired to protect her, but because, in his life, nothing mattered anymore.
With his life emptied of the little meaning it had, one can presume that Leo has no place for love or is unable to give love a place. But, along the way, Leo starts falling in love with Monica, mainly due the lack and the desire (to be protected) that she keeps on (unconsciously) expressing (Narra-note 3). Can Leo assume a position that will allow him to express his love for Monica – and would enable a true romantic relationship (Narra-note 4 (Spoiler))?
Takashi Miike’s dynamically framed narrative offers a contrast between two different kinds of violence (Cine-note 1). This contrast is function the aestheticization of the violence and of the acting. The boxing violence of Reo, for instance, is always framed in a down-to-earth and realistic way. The same is true for Masataka Kubota’s performance; his acting never ventures in the field of the ridiculous nor is it marked by over-acting. In the case of our criminals and lowlifes, their violence is always marked by some form of comedy. If it is not the visualization or the aestheticization of the violence that delivers the comedic punchline, it is the various characters of the underworld that deliver the punchline (Cine-note 2). Shota Sometani is hilarious as the clumsy scheming Kase, Nao Omori delivers Omoto’s deadpan comments with comedic precision, and Becky portrays the bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged Julie with just the right amount of over-acting.
The violence of our criminals is a-humane. It is a violence that finds its main origin in the imaginary, in feelings of conflict (e.g. the desire to take vengeance) and in the desire to enjoy. The fact that Miike frames this violence in a comedic way allows him, besides deflating the impact of this violence, to ridicule this kind of violence and ridicule their conflict over phallic power. Leo’s violence is, contrary to, humane. It is not born from a desire to affirm or prove one’s phallic power, but from a desire to protect, a desire function of the love one feels for another. By framing it as it is Miike seemingly implies that only this kind of violence deserves a place in reality.
For First Love’s finale, one should not except non-stop violence and action like in Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010) or in Blade of The Immortal (2017) or a tensive horror finale like in Miike’s Audition (1999). First Love’s finale is a finale that perfectly balances moments of rests with sudden outburst of violence (and, in many cases, eruptions of comedy). But there is one aspect of this finale that might annoy viewers: the fact that the finale is structured by the aspect of surprise. The composition of the finale makes it unable for the spectator to know where a certain character is within the shared narrative space. While this form of composition causes the finale to feel somewhat disjointed, this composition is also effective in surprising the spectator, who is left guessing who will face off with who.
With First Love, Takashi Miike’s delivers another entertaining narrative littered with memorable moments. It is so damn entertaining that one might actually forget to see that this balanced mix of bloody violence, hilarious comedy, and subtle romance is actually, at its core, a humanist narrative. Yes, you read that right. First love, by contrasting the hilarious violence of our criminals with the down-to-earth boxing of Leo, beautifully underlines that the only kind of violence worthy of humanity is a violence born out of love.
Narra-note 1: Attentive spectators will notice that, from Monica’s perspective, Otomo and the abusive father have become one. In other words, Otomo has become the physical support of the hallucination of her father.
Narra-note 2: It is unclear if the encounter between Monica and Reo should be seen as a chance encounter or if their encounter was destined to happen. The spectator can read the narrative in either way. Do note that the Japanese trailer uses the signifier unmei which means fate.
Narra-note 3: The lack/desire Monica keeps on expresses is, of course, function of the withdrawal symptoms, i.e. the hallucinations.
Narra-note 4: It is due to a hilarious plot-twist in the finale that Leo’s subjective position radically changes. He is suddenly put in a position where he is allowed to desire, where he is able to answer Monica’s lack with his desire to protect her, and where he’s allowed to let his love for her guide his actions.
The first punch Leo deals, after his changed position, is a true revelation of his desire and proof of his love. Leo’s desire and love radically changes Monica’s exploited position. His desire gives her, within his subjectivity, a place of necessity.
With the expression of his desire, Leo reveals the lack that has marked his entire life. He has lacked someone to life for, someone that gives his life more than just direction: true meaning. It would not be wrong to say that Monica humanizes Leo and that his desire/his love allows her to leave the product behind.
Cine-note 1: Miike’s reliance on following movement and spatial movement and his playful play with shaky or fluid framing, Miike’s has succeeded in creating a dynamic and ever appealing composition.
Cine-note 2: That comedic potential of the visualization of violence and the performances of the actors/actresses is fully used is also due to the composition or, in more specific terms, how the cut is used. While Akira Kamiya’s editing does not always utilizes the artistic potential of Miike’s shots, he should be applauded for making the narrative so effective in delivering its comedic punchlines.