'First Love' ('Hatsukoi'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Familiar territory for Miike, but never boring.

Prolific Japanese genre maestro Takashi Miike’s latest Cannes world premiere is a riotous rom-com with a high body count.

Rival underworld assassins decapitating each other with samurai swords. Ghostly apparitions dancing through subway trains in their underpants. Home-made incendiary bombs triggered by cute toy dogs. Welcome back to the darkly funny, ultraviolent universe of Japanese pulp auteur Takashi Miike, returning to the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes with his latest genre-hopping gangster rom-com First Love.

Set over a single evenftul night in Tokyo, First Love is Miike’s fourth international co-production with the London-based Recorded Picture Company. It offers little thematically or stylistically novel that devotees of Japan’s most prolific B-movie maestro will not have seen many times before. Even so, the Tarantino-style rollercoaster ride is as effortlessly enjoyable as ever, accentuating the director's lighter comic leanings over his bloodthirsty side. Having built a global cult following in a career spanning almost 30 years and over 100 directing credits, Miike’s latest superior genre exercise will likely fill many more cult-movie festival slots and do modest but reliable business on big and small screen.

Miike and frequent screenwriting collaborator Masaru Nakamura are unabashedly dealing in familiar pulp-fiction archetypes here. Sullen pretty-boy Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a talented young boxer with a troubled family history and a possible death sentence hanging over him in the form of a brain tumor, which makes him fearless bordering on reckless. Yuri, aka Monica, (Sakurako Kanishi) is an innocent woman sold into a living hell of prostitution and drug addiction by her abusive father to pay off his debts to the yakuza. One night in Tokyo, these two doomed lovers are thrown together by fate after baby-faced gangster Kase (Shota Sometani) tries to double cross his bosses, cutting a secret side deal with crooked cops to hijack an incoming drugs shipment.

By Kase’s Machiavellian calculations, blame for the heist will fall on a rival Chinese underworld clan, and he will escape the resulting bloodbath with a handsome pay-off. But of course, the best laid plans of mice and gangsters rarely run smoothly. The long night ahead proves to be full of treacherous twists and explosive escalations, with sword-wielding fury Julie (Becky Rabone) out for revenge following the murder of her yakuza boyfriend. Set in a deserted warehouse store, the riotous finale throws the two fugitives into the middle of a huge showdown involving mobsters, police, one-armed bandits and elite Chinese assassins.

Miike shoots First Love with typically zippy, kinetic, brightly colored panache. But the grindcore bloodlust levels are unusually restrained by the director’s hyperbolic standards, lighter than usual on hallucinatory surrealism and cartoonish splatter violence. The stock characters and routine crime-thriller plot mechanics also make for a fairly conventional first half.

That said, there is still plenty of enjoyable gory comic carnage here. The high-energy brio also kicks up a gear in the second half, particularly during the bravura final battle. A brief detour into Pop Art-style animation late in the story comes as a joyous surprise, earning rowdy cheers and applause at the Cannes premiere. And as ever with the hardest working director in pulp cinema, even if Miike’s latest genre-blurring bloodbath leaves you a little underwhelmed, just wait a few weeks and another two or three will come along.

Venue: Cannes film festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: OLM, Recorded Picture Company, Toei Company
Cast: Masataka Kubota, Sakurako Kanishi, Shota Sometani, Becky Rabone, Nao Ohmori, Jun Murakami
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriter: Masaru Nakamura
Producers: Muneyuki Kii, Misako Saka, Jeremy Thomas
Cinematographer: Nobuyasu Kita
Editor: Akira Kamiya
Music: Koji Endo
Production designer: Takeshi Shimizu
Sales company: Hanway Films, London
108 minutes