The movies from the previous weeks have all featured romantic love and some level of violence. In preparation for Valentine’s Day, I give you a story about…love? Well…maybe a love of violence. This is Takashi Miike, after all.
Meet Leo. Leo likes to listen to…digeridoo music while training for boxing matches.
Completely unrelated to that, this guy just decapitated that other guy. The other guy manages to blink a couple times and shuffle a few inches before finally falling dead.
Leo just won a boxing match, but he doesn’t seem all that happy about it. It is just something that happened. And now he moves on with the day. His coach is perplexed at his seemingly uninterested stoicism. Whatever. Leo is on a winning streak. Perhaps this is how he wins…or boxing without true challenge has just become boring. His coach warns him that he is young now, but will eventually lose matches without the drive.
Detective Ōtomo encounters Yakuza member Kase by the scene of the decapitation. Kase theorizes that the Chinese killed the guy. Well…at least that is what he says to Ōtomo; that conveniently steers blame away from his own gang. But Ōtomo seems to agree that it was the Chinese, and warns Kase to not let that fate happen to him. Kase doesn’t think that that would ever happen to him. Well, wasn’t Kase’s gang supplying drugs to the dead Filipino dealer? Of course not; drugs are illegal. Regardless, Ōtomo says, war is in the air. After all, Kase’s boss is getting released from prison soon and this happened?
Sure enough, boss Gondō is released from prison. Two of his men greet him and bring him back to his territory.
Leo meets with Kaneko, from the Boxing World magazine. They want to feature Leo as part of their Tomorrow’s Champions column. And with that, Kaneko asks Leo why he took up boxing. Leo doesn’t answer. Kaneko…brings up that Leo did not know his parents…and then asks again. Leo says that there was no reason; it was simply the only thing that he could do. I am not sure that that was the answer that Kaneko wanted.
Leo goes to his real job, working at a Chinese restaurant. There, a Chinese woman is saying that she fell in love with the Yakuza in the movies, only to find that the real deal are such disappointments, lacking in humanity, and unworthy of calling themselves men. Leo’s boss says that everyone is struggling in the world and have no time to show humanity towards others.
Leo is back in the ring. Kaneko is in the audience. And Leo is dominating. He has his opponent in one corner. He has his opponent in another corner. It looks like Leo is about to go in for the final blow when…he gets dizzy and falls to the floor. Did the other guy get a hit in? It is difficult to tell. But the ref is counting. And counting. And…Leo lost the match. Just like that.
Meet Monica. Monica is currently struggling to even crawl on the floor of an apartment unit. That is until she sees Ryuji silently motioning her to run out of the apartment. She tries to follow, but the door to the outside is locked. She bangs on the door and yells for Ryuji. Who is Ryuji anyways?
As Monica continues to bang on the door, this fellow emerges from the…floor. What? He slowly walks toward Monica.
A woman named Julie opens the door and kicks Monica to the floor, telling her to shut up. And…it looks like that guy disappeared. I guess that both he and Ryuji were hallucinations. Monica begs for forgiveness, insisting that she will not do it again. She then asks Julie about the…stuff. What stuff? Either way, Julie gets annoyed. Monica has not earned enough as a sex worker to pay off her father’s debt and she still wants to increase that debt?
Well, no matter. Julie goes to her boyfriend Yasu…who was reading a book and smoking in the adjacent room the whole time that Monica was screaming? Okay, well, Julie tells him that Monica wants more of the stuff. Later, he says nonchalantly. Julie goes on to complain about Monica not bringing in money and constantly screaming about Ryuji. Not really paying attention, Yasu tells Julie to go buy some food. Julie badgers him into coming along with her, leaving Monica alone in the apartment.
Kase meets with Detective Ōtomo at a restaurant. Kase asks if Ōtomo sells confiscated drugs on the black market. Well, of course he doesn’t; that would be illegal. Well, in any case, Kase says that a large shipment is coming in. Kase suggests that they take it and split it. But…that would be illegal. Ōtomo says that they would not be able to sell it all at once. Well, bit by bit, then. Ōtomo isn’t sure, saying that the Yakuza is crumbling due to infighting while facing problems from the Chinese who don’t care about honor. Wait; that Chinese woman said the same thing about the Yakuza.
Anyways, Kase says that Gondō wants to retaliate against the Chinese, even though the acting Chairman told him that the higher ups prefer peaceful coexistence. Of course, the boss of the Chinese, Wang Do, will not stay hidden now that the man who had cut off his arm has been released from prison. In the midst of this, Kase plans on stealing the drugs and giving them to Ōtomo. Then he will get into a fight with a civilian and go to jail for…TWO OR THREE YEARS? What kind of scheme is this? Well, anyways, Kase assumes that Gondō’s gang and Wang Do’s gang will have destroyed each other by then. Okay. Ōtomo asks if Kase has that much trust in him. Of course. Ōtomo is a public servant. Kase gives Ōtomo a cellphone and tells him the plan. Then the two leave the restaurant, going their separate ways. Kase does not seem to notice that Joshima, another Yakuza member, has been waiting outside and is following him as he walks off.
Leo gets an MRI and the doctor tells him that he has a tumor that is extremely difficult to remove. Leo asks if that is why he collapsed. The doctor says that it is possible. No, Leo says. It must have been a lucky punch, even if it was not particularly hard. He cannot accept this…well…so what if they don’t operate? The doctor admits not knowing how long Leo would live. But definitely no more boxing.
While Leo walks dejectedly down the street, Ōtomo walks with purpose. Flashback to the restaurant, as Kase tells him the plan. So, the group always changes where they bag the goods. This time, Yasu will hold onto the drugs at his apartment until police presence is gone. Since Monica gets money by going on dating sites, Kase had booked her for the night that the drugs come in. Ōtomo can spend the night with her to keep her out of the way and then frame her for the theft. If Ōtomo wants to have sex with her during that time, that’s fine. In the meantime, Kase will stash the drugs and then give them to Ōtomo in exchange for Monica. If Ōtomo wants to kill her before then, that’s fine. Ōtomo says that he is not into that. Okay, then Kase will do it himself.
Ah, but that is not all. Kase says that Yasu’s girlfriend will take Monica to the rendezvous spot. She will have to be dealt with. How?
Kase has gotten in contact with this Chinese charmer and told him to kidnap Julie after Monica goes to see Ōtomo. He is to text Yasu using her phone, claiming that this is retaliation for their mistreatment of Monica.
Leo has been sitting on the sidewalk for who knows how long. A fortune teller comes along and says Leo is in his space to set up shop. Leo doesn’t move, so the fortune teller asks if he wants a reading. Whatever. So, the fortune teller does his thing and…tells Leo that it would be better if he were to fight for someone else instead of for himself. When Leo reveals that he is a boxer, the fortune teller says that it applies even there. Leo then asks about his health. So, the fortune teller does his thing again and says that Leo is extremely healthy. Leo should be happy; he had refused to believe the doctor and so this is confirms his feelings. But, nope. Leo rejects this good news as nonsense. He is going to die. Alone. Just as he was born and immediately abandoned. He cares nothing for others. The fortune teller insists that he is young and his life has just begun, but Leo screams that his life is over. Then he walks off.
Ōtomo and Monica have been walking down the street for a while. Ōtomo has been fiddling with her phone…likely as part of the scheme. Monica, who had been acting a little strange every so often, stops right in the middle of the street. She must be hallucinating again, seeing the man from Yasu’s apartment again. He starts running at her, so she runs off back the way that she had come. Having no idea what is going on, Ōtomo runs after her.
Monica runs and runs and runs right past Leo, brushing against him ever so slightly. She cries out for help. Leo turns to look at her, and she stops running to turn around. Then Leo turns back to see Ōtomo.
And then Leo knocks Ōtomo the fuck out.
Leo starts looking through Ōtomo’s things and realizes that he just knocked out a cop. Oops. Monica runs up to him, calling him Ryuji and pulling him away. Probably for the best.
Yasu has returned to his apartment with the drugs. Kase has been waiting for him. As Yasu opens the door to his apartment, a ski-masked Kase sneaks up behind him and turns on his taser…only to hit his arm against the doorknob and drop the taser. Oops. Yasu turns around and rips off Kase’s ski mask, recognizing him instantly. Well, that complicates things. So, pulls out a knife…and then a gun. Yasu is relentless, so Kase shoots him…several times. And then he leaves with the bag of drugs, once again totally not noticing Joshima outside of the apartment unit.
At some point, Ōtomo wakes up. A nurse (who is perhaps a little drunk) has been sitting by him ever since Leo knocked him out. Ōtomo cannot find his badge and the nurse theorizes that the guy who hit him must have taken him. She points in the general direction that Leo and Monica went, so Ōtomo runs that way.
Back to Julie and the Charmer. The Charmer tells her to unlock her phone and give it to him. He tells Julie to take off her trousers as he sends Yasu a threatening text, not knowing that Yasu is already dead. Julie manages to use his pervy-ness to get the drop on him, beating him senseless and strangling him with her trousers. When he coughs up quite a bit of blood on her trousers, she stomps on his head, seemingly more upset that she will no longer be able to wear them than anything else that he had done. At some point during this, the Charmer dies, which annoys Julie even further. Eventually, she tries to contact Yasu. His phone shows that he is home, so why is he not answering?
Leo and Monica find a place to rest. Leo comments that Monica was not running away from the cop. So, who was she running away from? Her father. Monica tries to elaborate, but gets too scared to. Perhaps sensing that that is too sensitive a topic, Leo then asks who Ryuji is. A high school classmate who punched out her father. Leo asks if he looks like Ryuji. No. She admits that she has been taking drugs and hallucinating. Oh, speaking of drugs…she should probably go back to work. Her employers took her out on loan from her father to pay off his debts before he disappeared, and now she has debts. Acknowledging that that is a horrible situation Leo suggests that she not return to work. And…so that is that? Monica thanks him and, after some hesitation, he walks away. Well…not quite. He tells her that that cop will probably find her if she stays there. So, Monica walks away from the cage-looking fence and goes with Leo.
Kase goes to the gang headquarters, using traffic as an excuse for being late. Gondō asks him about Yasu and Kase pretends to be surprised that Yasu hadn’t gotten in contact. Okay, what about Joshima? Nothing yet either. Suddenly, Kase’s phone rings. He excuses himself.
Of course, it is Ōtomo on the other end of the call. And he is furious. As if him getting his badge stolen was Kase’s fault. Joshima arrives and seems like he is trying to eavesdrop, so Kase tries to be coy and hangs up on Ōtomo. Little does Kase know that Joshima knows quite a bit.
Julie runs to the apartment to find Yasu dead. She calls up Ichikawa, one of Gondō’s subordinates, and tells him that Yasu is dead. Shocked that Julie is still alive, Kase grabs the phone and demands to know where, and by whom. Julie doesn’t know who did it, but is certain that Monica is involved. She tells him about the non-Japanese man who abducted her. Kase proclaims that it must be the Chinese. He then asks about the drugs. Monica doesn’t know. Kase tells her to stay put.
Gondō gets up, but the acting Chairman tells him to stay put while he talks with HQ. Gondō argues that they don’t need HQ’s approval to retaliate in a fight that someone else had started. He tells Joshima to put an eye on the Chinese while he, Kase, and Ichikawa go to see Julie.
Joshima sends his underling on some drug errand so that he can take a phone call alone. It’s…oh…it is a Chinese gangster named Fu. I am not sure that this is what Gondō meant by putting an eye on the Chinese. Is Joshima a mole? Fu asks why Gondō’s group is running around so much. Joshima gives him the line that their drugs were taken, probably by the captive girl and a friend. He doesn’t mention Kase’s suspicious activities, but he does say that the captive girl narrative is a convenient excuse to kickstart a fight. As if the decapitated Filipino guy was not enough. Fu seem to welcome the fight.
Joshima asks if Wang has returned. He returned yesterday, and is eager for a reunion with Gondō.
Fu demands that Joshima dig up information about this girl and then hangs up. He then tells Jia Zhi to wake up and gather the boys. Who is Jia Zhi? Oh, it is the woman at the restaurant.
Monica and Leo are once again taking a rest. Monica tells him that her father would drink a lot when she was a child and hit her when she was bad, which was also a lot. She trails off before she can say what else happened. Leo says that that is all the more reason for her not to work to pay off his debt. He says that drugs are a death sentence, but she has managed to survive up until now despite everything in her past. Now she should think of her future. He then asks if her name is Monica, as Ōtomo had been calling her. That is just her work name, she tells him. Her real name is Yuri.
There are only a few years in Miike Takashi’s career when he has made only one movie. 2019 was the second of three years in a row where he has done only one movie and directed a few episodes of a TV show. I don’t know if this means that Miike was slowing down or whether this was simply the only movie that he wanted to focus on that year. Either way, this one got his near-full attention. I do get the impression that Miike put a lot of effort into the movie, putting a lot of deliberate thought into it. Even the moments of anarchy seem very planned out.
Miike’s output varies greatly in terms of style and content, but many of his movies tend to be rather messed up in some way. And many of them center on gangsters or feature them. Some of the movies have a creepy atmosphere while others are just gleefully gross. And a few are just outright boring.
The driving story of this movie is basically a robbery that goes very wrong in the midst of a coming gang war. The whole scheme that Kaze concocts is almost parodic in its convolutedness. And while it could have unraveled from one thing going wrong, three things go wrong independent of each other. It just piles on twist upon twist like a joke.
I don’t know what it says about my expectations regarding Miike films that this one seems comparatively grounded in relation to his…non-boring gangster films. Perhaps it is because it shows them as the standard comedic gangster movie badasses in a hyper-real than weirdos or depraved degenerates.
Sure, there are some quirky character moments, big silly sequences, and moments that puncture even the heightened reality. And anything involving the effects of drugs seems like the writer was just making things up. And, yes, it did feature lopped-off head that still blinks less than three-minutes into the runtime. Still, the movie appears to set up pseudo-believable parameters and stay largely within them, which are not things that one can say about certain other Miike movies. Even the big sequence did not devolve into chaos as much as it could have. Whether those are good things or bad things is up to the viewer. I could have used a little more chaos, but I do appreciate the deliberateness.
Despite all of the gangster parts of the story, the movie’s title is First Love, not exactly a standout title in English or Japanese. So, the real focus of the movie is on Leo and Monica/Yuri. They are two young civilians who are associated with organized crime against their will. Leo is a man who grew up without a real family and feels like he needs no one. Boxing may be a way for him to let out his anger against the world through inflicting pain and feeling it back, but he doesn’t seem to act like it is. It is just rote moves against unworthy nobodies. And he himself is an unworthy nobody. He is just an empty shell of a man until he learns that he is on borrowed time. And then he meets Yuri.
Yuri has lived a life of abuse by her father and then a life of abuse under the thumb of gangsters. She has worth other than the money that she can make for others, which is not much. She suffers from serious trauma and has become addicted to drugs, which cuts into the money that she makes. It is unclear whether the drugs lead to visions or if they suppress the visions, but she sees things anyways, which cuts into the money that she makes. Sometimes, she sees her father. Sometimes she sees Ryuji, who was perhaps the only person who actually did something nice to him…until she meets Leo.
I do kind of appreciate that the story of Leo and Yuri is kind of straightforward. Miike could have presented it as a deconstructed subversion or a satire and it may have still been a highly entertaining movie. But he seemed to treat them with gentle respect. In this world of apathy and misery, these two lost souls managed to find each other, discover their shared humanity, and awaken feelings that they probably did not believe that they could feel.
It is also something to note that this was Konishi Sakurako’s first feature film role, having performed only in a short film and a music video before then. The role of Monica/Yuri may not have necessarily required as much showy acting as a few of the other roles in the movie, but it was pretty big and she certainly made an impression.
I don’t want to spoil the ending more than I did. Yet, I have to say that the end of the movie kind of amazed me. I suppose that the ending could have been trimmed by quite a bit and some of it could have been excised completely and it would still have been a fine movie. But, instead, the movie just keeps going. One might wonder why the movie is still going after the big sequence, and whether it is going anywhere. But the moments being shown are shown for their own sake, indicating that while the big sequence marked the end of one chapter, it is not really the end end. I really appreciate that.
This is a fun movie. And perhaps a little moving. If you want a movie to watch for Valentine’s Day, this one can be your Violent Time.
WTF ASIA 252: The Sword Identity (China: 2011, approx. 110 minutes)
WTF ASIA 253: The Man Standing Next (South Korea: 2020, approx. 110 minutes)