First Love: Slap Happy, by David Bax
This review originally ran as a part of our TIFF 2019 coverage.
Takashi Miike’s world is one of commonplace sociopathy. In his newest film, First Love, as in his others, the criminals aren’t just criminals. They’re ice cold sadists and slavering maniacs. And yet, also as in so many of his other films, there’s a sweetness–a belief in life–just under the misanthropy and pessimism.
Leo (Masataka Kubota) is a boxer who has just been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. Walking the streets in despair, he sees a young woman fleeing in terror and a man giving chase. He knocks the latter out with one punch, inadvertently foiling a plot hatched by a yakuza underling (Shôta Sometani) and a corrupt cop (Nao Ohmori) to rip off the crime organization. This, through a convoluted series of events, sets off a war between the yakuza, the Chinese mafia and, eventually, a whole lot of police. Leo and the young woman he saved, Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), are like the characters in a Hitchcock wrong-man movie, caught in the middle. And while trying to survive, they also find themselves falling for each other. The details of the gangster and the cop’s scheme or of how the Chinese mafia even gets involved in the first place are easy to lose track of but it hardly matters. What’s important is Miike and screenwriter Masa Nakamura’s constant, madcap heightening and the often comically inventive violence done by comically inventive characters.
Most of the laughs in First Love–and there are many–sprout from the fact that almost every character is an absolute idiot. Whether they’re motivated by unjustified anger or simply an inability to come up with any solution to a problem other than murder, they are all doomed by their own stupidity. Except, that is, for Leo and Yuri, who are doomed by things that are not his fault. The darkest of the dark comedy in First Love comes not from the severed limbs and crushed heads that pile up in this violent farce but from how bad we feel for poor, dumb, dying Leo and the abused Yuri.
There’s that standard issue Miike fatalism again. The inherent tragedy of the inevitable corruption and death of First Love‘s characters is underlined by the casting of Kubota, Konishi and Sometani, all of whom have almost painfully youthful faces whose destinies are to wail and bleed.
Through all of this, though, there is hope. Miike believes, in his heart, that Leo and Yuri could have a future together, that happiness and content might await them on the other side of all the mayhem. First Love may be remembered less for its multiple decapitations and other grotesqueries than for having what may be the most touching final shot in any film this year.