By Matthew Fullerton.
First Love (Hatsukoi), prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike’s sixtieth film in twenty-four years according to last count, is a wild and fun night-time ride through an urban war between Japanese and Chinese gangsters. Although First Love marks a full-fledged return for Miike to the Asian mafia genre, which he first explored in his Black Society Trilogy (1995-1999), it is not a gangster movie in the wholly traditional sense, with one gang simply battling loyally over territory against another. Through the explosive violence (though far from being one of Miike’s bloodiest films), the action, of which there is plenty, and comedy (there are several laugh-out loud moments), a social justice element meanders, with characters from fringe societies jockeying to break out from their molds and restart their lives in a Tokyo that still marginalizes not only non-conformists, but also non-Japanese.
Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) is a quiet, serious, and some might say, sullen, young man, whose greatest skill is boxing. Even after a win, he shows little excitement, his overly stoic nature frustrating his coach and betraying his unfortunate upbringing: orphaned since infancy and never knowing his biological parents, he bides his time between the gym, the boxing ring and a dingy hole-in-the-wall Chinese resto-bar, where he works in the kitchen pealing eggs. Leo, therefore, lives a marginalized life, stuck between two worlds.
Kase (Shōta Sometani), a young Japanese gangster, eventually finds himself caught between two worlds, too, as he tries scheming his way out of the yakuza, whose days as a powerful force in the criminal underworld appear numbered. Despite his boss Gondo’s recent prison release, Kase sees the writing on the wall for his gang. “The old ways fade away,” he tells the corrupt cop Otomo (Nao Ōmori). “As do the yakuza.” Kase has just roped Otomo into his plot to steal and sell yakuza meth, a move that will eventually prompt a colossal battle between Kase’s old gang and the Chinese mafia. Their plan, of course, unravels quickly, as Kase fumbles and kills (which he is adept at doing, like Leo is at boxing, though Kase’s skill is more comedic and whimsical) his way to solidifying a yakuza-free future for himself.
After a random encounter on a Shinjuku street, Leo and Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a young woman forced into prostitution to pay off her abusive father’s yakuza debt, are unwittingly caught up in Kase’s plot and the subsequent war between the Japanese and Chinese mafias. What also unites them through the chaos of gang violence is the nature of their past: Leo is seemingly without one, whereas Monica has had her past snatched away, though it frequently haunts her in the form of withdrawal-induced hallucinations, both good (visions of Ryuji, her first love from high school) and bad (her semi-naked father pursuing her). “Whatever with the past,” Leo tells Monica during one of her hallucinations. It’s easy for him to say this because he is a person with apparently no memories. Just prior to meeting Monica, Leo’s promising boxing career is unraveled by a brain tumour, discovered after he is knocked out by a soft punch during his last bout, in effect erasing his future and whatever past he had created for himself through boxing. It is only through chaos that there can be rebirth for the likes of these characters, another message that permeates First Love.
And it’s the film’s climactic scene, a fast-paced colossal urban battle between the Chinese and Japanese gangs in Tokyo side streets, alleyways and parking garages that provides the necessary chaos-before-redemption. On the surface, it appears to be simply a clash of characters “from different worlds”. These worlds, however, are more intertwined and related than they would appear. The fighters are outsiders in the greater society, after all, no matter the differences in their codes, traditions and languages, and between them stand those caught in the middle, themselves outsiders, too – Leo and Monica, and Julie (played by half-Japanese and half-English pop singer and television personality Becky), the vengeful girlfriend of Yasu, a valued yakuza drug dealer killed in the early stages of Kase’s plot.
Other than being victims of Kase and Otomo’s conspiracy and the consequent outburst of violence, what unites Leo, Monica and Julie is their non-Japanese names. Their westernized names mark them out further as outsiders, and, in the case of Monica, whose Japanese name (Yuri) was snatched from her by her yakuza handlers, her working name also represents repression. Though Leo has a Japanese family name, his mysterious lineage and his foreign first name give the impression he might not be fully Japanese. The fact he lives and works in a Chinese neighbourhood certainly reinforces the idea of an enigmatic childhood in a marginalized ethnic community.
And Miike knows a thing or two about disadvantaged communities and the unjust treatment of minority groups in Japan: according to his bio, he grew up in a working-class area of Osaka inhabited by many Korean immigrants and their descendants, themselves frequently marginalized in modern Japan, and his father was a Korea-born Japanese national. It is therefore no coincidence that First Love’s first victim (and likely a part of Kase’s plot) is not a Japanese national. Rather, he is one of the yakuza’s Filipino dealers, beheaded on a Shinjuku street with a samurai-sword, the most recognizably Japanese killing implement, just as Leo delivers a knock-out punch in the ring at the beginning of First Love. The yakuza, of course, want vengeance for the affront, not because the Filipino is one of their own, but because he is their prized dealer. The scene of the decapitated Filipino, his head, with eyes still blinking, left on a busy sidewalk, hearkens back to similarly shocking imagery from the opening of Miike’s Shinjuku Triad Society (1995), the first film in the aforementioned Black Society Trilogy. Like First Love, the films of the Trilogy feature many double-crossing gangsters, corrupt cops and marginalized characters, such as homosexuals, caught up in the crime and violence perpetuated by ethnic gangs, namely the yakuza and the Chinese Triad.
Stylistically, fans of the John Wick film series will certainly appreciate First Love’s final battle, a well-orchestrated series of action sequences that shift frenetically to a variety of locales, including, interestingly, a hardware store. As such, the Cowboy Bebop-ish music by Kōji Endō provides a most appropriate soundtrack to the final battle’s frenzied sequences.
Tarentino fans, of course, will not be disappointed with First Love either. The American director and Miike have often been compared in the past for their films’ sudden explosions in violence. Another thing the two directors have in common is their ability to push their actors to extremes. And that is certainly the case with Becky, who is superb as the tough-as-nails, raging and often vicious Julie. Both Nao Ōmori, who played Ichi in Miike’s famous cinematic bloodbath Ichi the Killer (2001), and Shōta Sometani, make fine comedic antagonists, and because of their convincing clumsiness, it is often difficult not to cheer for them regardless of their malicious intents and the tragic consequences of their ill-conceived and executed plot. Seiyō Uchino also impresses as the brooding, yet often cool-and-collected Gondo, whose disdain for the Chinese simmers, at a convincing pace, closer and closer to the surface with each outrage committed against his gang. And fans of Miike’s past oeuvre will appreciate his distinct style, including his creepy interior shots of drab and cluttered apartments and run-down homes that are reminiscent of his horror masterpiece Audition (1999) and the films of his one-time mentor Shohei Imamura (The Pornographers (1966); Vengeance is Mine (1979)).
Matthew Fullerton is an educator and part-time academic (Dalhousie University) in Nova Scotia, Canada. He researches and writes about the cinemas of Tunisia and Japan, two countries in which he used to live, work and study.