As the title of Takashi Miike’s latest film spells out, there’s a budding relationship at the heart of First Love—a tender, tentative romance between Leo (Masataka Kubota), a boxer with a brain tumor, and Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young, drug-addicted woman forced into prostitution to pay off the debts of her abusive father. And as it progresses, First Love follows the traditional beats of a cinematic love story, starting with a meet-cute and ending with a happily ever after.
But this is a Miike movie, after all, so that’s not all there is: In and around Leo and Monica’s romance is an ongoing war between Japanese and Chinese gangs, along with a bumbling gangster, a crooked cop, and stolen drugs. Which means every moment of the duo’s courtship is punctuated by a moment of violence. At this point in the prolific Miike’s career, echoing gunfire, lopped-off limbs, and old women getting punched in the face are his standing orders.
All this might sound like a recipe for a disaster, one that could offer whiplash-inducing tonal shifts or failed attempts to squeeze some tranquility between blood-soaked set pieces. Miike, though, knows how to mix these elements perfectly, easily weaving the “getting to know you” scenes among all the bullets and beheadings with delightful shreds of comedy.
It helps that we aren’t subjected to the big speeches or make-out sessions between our heroes: Leo and Monica are two supremely fucked-up people who’re barely holding themselves upright. They’re only able to do so—and only able to avoid taking bullets to their heads or swords to their throats—by grabbing on to each other for dear life. All the while, Miike keeps it all so balanced that Leo and Monica’s relationship never distracts from the gripping, high-octane crime drama they’re stuck in the middle of. In fact, you don’t even need to give a shit about whether Leo and Monica make it or not to enjoy First Love. Here for the romance? Great. Not here for the romance? Brush it aside, and focus instead on every other tense, brutal moment. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.