First Love (Japan, 2019) [TIFF 2019]

Not just a regular selection at the Toronto International Film Festival, but also a fixture of the festival’s frequently ballistic Midnight Madness program, Takashi Miike has expectedly hit another home run in his latest cinematic effort. First Love has all the usual kinetic craziness you would expect from a Miike film, but it also surprisingly delivers some of the director’s most tender storytelling to date. And as expected, it was extremely difficult to walk out of this screening without a huge grin on my face.

Set on the mean streets of downtown Tokyo, First Love revolves around amateur boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) and local drug addict Monica (Sakurako Konishi) who find themselves at the center of an evolving dispute between two rival gangs – one Japanese, and the other Chinese. To complicate matters, a policeman is also somehow involved in this gang war, setting into motion a night destined for violence and betrayal. Moreover, it sets the stage for the Miike to unleash his unyielding creativity in its fullest form.

What’s most impressive about First Love is Miike’s mastery of depicting organized chaos in such an entertaining way. Despite having a rather complicated storyline weaving a number of even more complicated (but memorable) characters, the film never misses a beat. Every ounce of violence, comedy and romanticism is clearly punctuated thanks to Miike’s command as a filmmaker. The love story between the two leads, which initially seems a bit contrived, also ends up being unexpectedly tender. It’s the plotline that really anchors the film’s emotional tone.

When it comes to violence and action, the film does not disappoint in any way. Characters are just as bombastic as one would expect in a film like this while the rivalry between Japanese and Chinese gangsters results in comedic and crowd-pleasing moments. A lot happens on screen, which doesn’t seem to overwhelm Miike, who even manages to work in a one-armed gangster brandishing a firearm while wearing something akin to a black trench coat. This shout-out to classic Hong Kong cinema was really just the cherry on top of an already flavorful product.

It’s unnerving to think that Miike has been making films for more than 30 years now and yet somehow shows no signs of slowing down creatively. There’s no question that First Love is a Miike film, but that’s not to say that it feels tired or uninspired. In fact, as with all his other recent films, there’s a sense of vitality to it that is beyond impressive. Many filmmakers work beyond their twilight years, but few are able to sustain this level of qualifying ambition. Miike is truly a remarkable filmmaker who hopefully has another combustible 30 years ahead of him.

First Love is showing on September 13, 14, and 15 at the Toronto International Film Festival.