Monday, October 07, 2019

First Love

At the risk of making too earnest a joke about its title, I wonder how many people are being introduced to Takashi Miike for the first time with First Love. Having spent most of the last decade and a half getting to know Miike's work from his films playing festivals and a brief period in the aughts when people were throwing everything they could against the wall to see what sticks on DVD, and being too comfortable in my very privileged ability to see unusual movies, I've got no idea how people might discover him today. Do fans of the manga adaptations he's done check out what else the director of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure has made? Does Netflix or Prime occasionally have their algorithm cough up his work when you've watched enough weird stuff? Is his work even well-represented on the streaming services considering how indifferent Japanese studios can seem to be about their movies crossing the Pacific? I am old and not plugged into how people discover things like this today.

Which makes me curious about Well Go grabbing this one and putting it into theaters. They haven't done a lot of Japanese genre cinema, concentrating on Chinese, Korean, and American indies, but they've got a channel on Amazon Prime and I wonder if maybe they're going to be pushing into this area a little more. I obviously recommend that they pick up the new Yoshihiro Nakamura movie coming this fall and also dipping into his catalog which has shamefully received little play here.

Or it's random, a festival acquisition the distributor thought would do well that doesn't signal any particular strategy. I kind of hope it's a sign of things to come, though.

Hatsukoi (First Love)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 6 October 2019 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

It's not just that director Takashi Miike has been incredibly prolific over the course of his career - this year's Fantasia International Film Festival was unusual not just in that he didn't have a film on the program, but that he usually has at least two - but in that he's done a bit of everything, from art-house experiments to family adventures to blockbuster comic-book adaptations, even if he's best known for offbeat crime and horror. First Love may not be the gob-smacking experience that his breakout films were, but is some good, old-school Miike, a throwback to when he was cranking out yakuza films on deadline and neither self-consciously weird nor surprisingly mainstream, even if it's also aware that those days are past.

It starts with a young boxer, Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota), who frustrates his coach by being talented but not passionate, like this is a job he fell into because he showed an aptitude in high school - at least until he has an apparent seizure in the ring and is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Elsewhere in Tokyo, yakuza Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) has just been released in prison and if he's not quite spoiling for a fight, he's not going to do anything to make war with the Chinese triads in Shinjuku less inevitable. One member of his clan, Kase (Shota Sometani), has a plan to kick it off now, stealing a shipment of meth from low-level soldier Yasu with the help of corrupt detective Ohtomo (Nao Ohmori) and then sitting it out for a couple year in jail on a minor charge before picking up the pieces when he gets out. They'll make the drug-addicted call girl stashed in Yasu's apartment, Yuri "Monica" Sakakuri (Sakurako Konishi), their fall guy. Or at least that's the plan before Monica hallucinates the father who sold her into prostitution and bolts past a sulking Leo, who thinks Ohtomo is attacking her and lays him out, while on Leo's end, Yasu's girlfriend Julie (Becky) proves unexpectedly difficult to dispose of.

There's more going on, although the traditional power struggles and other tales of yakuza honor are few and far between, which is something the characters themselves seem to find frustrating: Gondo is released into a world where the yakuza, who have often been portrayed as increasingly businesslike in recent years, are at the end stage of it, preparing to consolidate in a massive merger to stand against foreign competition, and is none to pleased about it. The triads' chief enforcer Chia is ironically even more disappointed; she came to Japan expecting to be thrust into a Ken Takakura movie only to find that culture dead or dying, if it was ever real. Miike and writer Masa Nakamura don't overtly harp on the end of the yakuza for much of the movie - we're already past showing prominent back tattoos or missing digits even to complain about the new generation not respecting tradition - but it's probably telling that a climactic moment completely disengages from reality. That's what audiences want now, and that's what they're going to get.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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