Takashi Miike long ago slipped past anything approaching genre constraints, and First Love is a testament to his ability to fuse disparate styles into a cohesive whole, or at least a whole that foregrounds the impossibility of cohesion. The film’s combination of Yakuza thriller and romantic drama sprints out of the gate with a rapid establishment of both the characters and their relationships with one another. We meet Leo (Masataka Kubota), a boxer struggling to stay ahead of mob pressures to fix fights; Otomo (Nao Ōmori), a crooked cop in the Yakuza’s pocket; Kase (Shōta Sometani), an up-and-coming gangster looking to get promoted; and Monica (Sakurako Konishi), a prostitute plagued by visions of the dead father who molested her. Just as quickly, Miike begins to thread together these characters, though compared to other network narratives that make a big show about the ways great and small that connect us, First Love delights in the sheer oddball coincidence that binds the film.

Miike has been parodying deluded Yakuza codes of honor for decades, and he revels in further skewering the narcissistic power grabs of mobster social climbers. Sometani plays Kase with hapless recklessness, imbuing the Yakuza’s get-rich-quick schemes with farcical incompetence. In a robbery on his own colleague, Kase walks into a doorknob while trying to sneak up on the man, who then disarms and unmasks him, prompting Kase to hilariously attempt to pass off the stick-up as a drill before getting into a fight that ends with Kase inadvertently shooting his friend.

That manic energy informs the rest of the film. Monica’s visions of her father appearing blend horror (an excellent shot of her flat bed sheet suddenly puffing up with the form of a body underneath) and black comedy in the man, clad only in soiled underwear, stumbling toward her like a zombie. Elsewhere, Kase’s accidental murder unleashes the wrath of the man’s girlfriend, Juri (Becky), a petite young woman who abruptly turns into a monster. Even before she learns that Kase killed her beau, she beats him savagely when he comes on to her, clubbing his head and putting him in a brutal chokehold, screaming “Don’t try to get out of this by dying!” when he starts to go limp. Later, Kase gets into an absurd car chase with his superiors when word of his deception gets out, his attempts to flee turned into a series of endless circles as free jazz blares over the soundtrack.

Kase’s machinations propel the film, but the core of First Love, fittingly, is the budding romance between the taciturn Leo and the traumatized Monica, whose own connections to the criminal underground make her at once the film’s heart and its MacGuffin. Monica’s economic hardship is offered up as easy social commentary, but the crux of her character lies in her unprocessed trauma over her childhood abuse. That Miike manages to make something funny out of her therapeutic arc, which climaxes with a form of laughing at one’s demons that deliberately makes a joke of the horror that afflicts her, is almost as impressive as the director’s ability to wring genuine pathos from it as well.

The constantly intersecting storylines of First Love build chaotically to a final act so high on its own abandon that it reflects one character’s numbed, ecstatic heroin daze, marveling at how a number of gunshot wounds cause no pain at all. “Yakuza with no sense of honor are scum,” opines one gangster at the top of the film, and Miike never once pretends that the mob has any values at all, and if anything he suggests that the efforts taken to pretend that they do limit the gangsters. First Love finds the Yakuza attempting to globalize in the modern market, but ironically, their commitment to the façade of honor prompts an endless level of internecine warfare that makes them more and more provincial, suggesting that they are nothing but a relic doomed to internal violence that the rest of us can only find grimly funny.

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