First Love (Hatsukoi) ★★1/2
When in doubt, grab a crowbar
Something happens when you find out you’re going to die. In the noir classic D.O.A. (1949), a fatally poisoned Frank Bigelow (Edmund O’Brien) heads for the police station to tell his story and help the cops find his killer. In “First Love,” a talented but orphaned and aimless young Tokyo boxer (Masataka Kubota as Leo) greets the news of his impending death with a newfound courage and determination and, acting out the prediction of a fortune teller, takes to fighting for others, namely a traumatized young woman drug addict (Sakurako Konishi as Yuri) forced into prostitution by gangsters and pursued by hallucinations stemming from her abusive father. Not surprisingly, Leo and Yuri have something resembling a relationship—hence the title.
But “First Love” isn’t really a love story. Indeed, “First Love” might be better understood to refer to prolific (more than 100 films in less than 20 years) and award-winning Japanese director Takashi Miike’s fondness for non-stop action, car chases, abundant and varied weaponry (tasers, knives, swords, shotgun, crowbar, car tires, a windshield), and over-the-top violence, including a beheading or two. There’s a gang war going on over 8 kilos of meth (if you can’t keep the sides straight, it doesn’t matter), and the dead bodies pile up. Much of the mayhem is played for comic effect: looking at his severed arm, a double-crossing gangster (Shôta Sometani as Kase) says, smiling: “it kinda hurts”; a crazed, bloodthirsty zombie-like woman (the one-named actress Becky as Julie) wields a crowbar; the head gangster (no idea who played him) tells our hero to escape their pursuers by soaring off the top level of a parking garage in a car--after all, “it’s a Japanese car.” And some of the violence is stylized (ala Tarantino, who has declared his fondness for Miike films), or appears on screen as a literal, color-intense, comic-book fantasy.
A heavy-handed, predictable plot twist requires Leo to do some soul-searching, but otherwise there’s not much room for soul. If you like the genre, you’ll enjoy “First Love”; if you don’t, stay home.
Director: Takashi Miike
Starring: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Konishi, Shôta Sometani, Becky
Language: Japanese and Chinese; Subtitled in English
Runtime: 108 minutes