First Love (初恋, Takashi Miike, 2019)

First love poster 1Taking a deep dive into Showa era nostalgia repurposed for the modern era, Takashi Miike returns to the world of jitsuroku excess with an ironic tale of honour and humanity. Quite literally all about the jingi, First Love (初恋. Hatsukoi) takes a pair of exiled loners betrayed by the older generation, and allows them to escape their sense of futility through simple human connection while the nihilistic gangster underworld slowly implodes all around them.

Sullen boxer Leo (Masataka Kubota) is so filled with ennui that nothing really excites him, not even success in the ring. An unexpected KO, however, sends him off to the doctor’s where he is told that he has a possibly inoperable brain tumour and very little time left to live. That is perhaps why he decides to punch a policeman in defence of a young woman running away and desperately pleading for help. Yuri (Sakurako Konishi), known as “Monica” to her captors, was sold to the yakuza by her father and has since become dependent on drugs. Little known to either Leo or Yuri, they are about to become embroiled in a long brewing turf war between the local yakuza and the Chinese Triads engineered by jaded underling Kase (Shota Sometani) who has enlisted rogue policeman Ohtomo (Nao Omori) to help in a plan to steal his gang’s drug supply and have Ohtomo sell it on in the same way he does with “confiscated” narcotics while blaming the whole thing on the Chinese.

Abandoned at birth, Leo is a man who doesn’t know his history and so doesn’t know himself. He tells a reporter that there is no particular reason that he boxes save that he doesn’t know how to do anything else, yet the fighter’s all that remains and “boxer” has become his entire identity. A passing fortune teller advises him that he loses because he only fights for himself and if he truly wants to win he needs to learn to fight for someone else, but Leo is used to being alone and believes he has no need of other people. Knowing he’s going to die means, paradoxically, that he has infinite potential because he has nothing left to lose.

Leo punching out the policeman reawakens in Yuri a memory of her “first love”, a high school classmate who tried to defend her against her abusive father whose ghost still haunts her in drug-fuelled hallucinations. The ultimate proof of the yakuza’s ironic lack of “jingi” or “honour and humanity” when it comes to the treatment of women, Yuri was betrayed first by her father and then by the petty street thug who got her hooked on drugs as a means of control and exploited her body for financial gain.

Ironically enough, it’s a Chinese Triad who proves the ultimate heir to “jingi” having come to Japan because of her love for classic Toei gangster hero Ken Takakura only to discover that kind of nobility is something you only see in the movies. While the yakuza lament that they’re at a disadvantage fighting the Chinese because they don’t need to worry about “honour” as dictated by their code, they are quick enough to scream vengeance when Kase convinces them that it was the Triads who offed their street fixer (Takahiro Miura) to get back at recently released gangster Gondo (Seiyo Uchino) who is the reason that the Triad boss is nicknamed One-Armed-Wang. Gondo and Wang are already on a collision course as representatives of their respective ideologies with Gondo perhaps the last true yakuza standing, faithful to his code to the end.

Sensing his strong sense of jingi, the romantic Triad allows Leo to escape with Yuri as if recognising that neither of them belong in this nihilistic world of pointless and internecine violence. Despite proclaiming that he had no need of other people, it’s Leo’s humanity that eventually saves him as he realises that he was always going to die and rediscovers his true strength through fighting to protect someone else. Yuri, meanwhile, finds the will to live again in making peace with the past and laying old ghosts to rest thanks to Leo’s altruistic decision to protect her. Echoing Fukasaku’s classic crime cycle in its severed heads and funky ‘70s jazz score remixing the iconic theme tune, Miike ups the ante with a series of outlandishly idiosyncratic gags as Kase’s nefarious scheme snowballs into a darkly humorous crescendo of ridiculous brutality, but ultimately rejects the futility of a world without jingi in allowing his pure hearted heroes the possibility of escape, saved rather than consumed by their sense of honour and humanity.


First Love was screened as part of the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Takashi Miike, 2000)

dead-or-alive-2-birds

How do you make a sequel to a film which ended with the apocalypse? Takashi Miike is no stranger to strange logic, but he gets around this obvious problem by neatly sidestepping it. Dead or Alive 2: Birds (DEAD OR ALIVE 2 逃亡者, Dead or Alive 2: Tobosha) is, in many ways, entirely unconnected with its predecessor, sharing only its title and lead actors yet there’s something in its sensibility which ties it in very strongly with the overarching universe of the trilogy. If Dead or Alive was the story of humanity gradually eroded by internecine vendetta, Dead or Alive 2 is one of humanity restored through a return to childhood innocence though its prognosis for its pair of altruistic hitmen is just as bleak as it was for the policeman who’d crossed the line and the petty Triad who came to meet him.

Signalling the continuous notions of unreality, we’re introduced to this strange world by a magician (Shinya Tsukamoto) who uses packets of cigarettes to explain the true purpose of a hit ordered on a local gangster which just happens to be not so different from the plot of the first film. Because the gangster world has its own kind of proportional representation, neither the yakuza nor the Triads can rule the roost alone – they need to enter a “coalition” with a smaller outfit no doubt desperate to carve out a little more power for themselves. The free agents, however, have decided on a way to even the power share – hire a hitman to knock off a high ranking Chinese gangster and engineer a turf war in which a proportion of either side will die, leaving the third gang a much more credible player.

Mizuki (Sho Aikawa), bleach blond and fond of Hawaiian shirts, is an odd choice for a secret mission but his sniper rifle is rendered redundant when a man in a dark suit does the job for him – loudly and publicly. So much the better, thinks Mizuki, but the memory of the strangely familiar figure haunts him. Finding himself needing to get out of town, Mizuki has a sudden urge to go home where he encounters the suited man again and confirms that he is indeed who he thinks he is – childhood friend, Shuichi (Riki Takeuchi).

Revisiting an old theme, Mizuki and Shuichi are orphans but rather than being taken directly into the yakuza world they each spent a part of their childhood in a village orphanage on an idyllic island. Miike frequently cuts back between the violent, nihilistic lives of the grown men and the innocent boyhood of long hot summers spent at the beach. The island almost represents childhood in its perpetual safety, bathed in a warm and golden light at once unchanging and eternal. Reconnecting with fellow orphan Kohei (Kenichi Endo) who has married another childhood friend, Chi (Noriko Aota), the three men regress to their pre-adolescent states playing on the climbing bars and kicking a football around just like old times.

Returning to this more innocent age, Mizuki hatches on an ingenious idea – reclaim their dark trade by knocking off those the world would be better off without and use their ill gotten gains to buy vaccines for the impoverished children of the world. In their innocent naivety, neither Mizuki nor Shuichi has considered the effect of their decision on local gangland politics (not to mention Big Pharma) and their desire to kill two “birds” with one stone will ultimately boomerang right back at them.

Innocence is the film’s biggest casualty as Miike juxtaposes a children’s play in which Mizuki and Shuichi have ended up playing a prominent role, with violent rape and murder going on in the city. Whether suggesting that the posturing of a gang war is another kind of playacting, though one with far more destructive consequences, or merely contrasting the island’s pure hearted fantasy with the cold, hard, gangland reality, Miike indulges in a nostalgic longing for the simplicity of childhood with its straightforward goodness filled with friendship and brotherhood rather than the constant betrayals and changing alliances of the criminal fraternity.

The question “Where are you going?” appears several times throughout the film and perhaps occurred to Mizuki and Shuichi at several points during their journeys from abandoned children to outcast men. Neither had much choice in their eventual destination and if they asked themselves that same question the answer was probably that they did not know or chose not to think about it. All of these hopes and ruined dreams linger somewhere around the island’s shore. Kohei is about to become a father but the birth of a child now takes on a melancholy air, the shadow of despair already hanging over him. There is no way out, no path back to a time before the compromises of adulthood but for two angelic hitmen, the road ends with meeting themselves again and, in a sense, regaining lost innocence in shedding their city-based skins.


Out now in the UK from Arrow Video!

Original trailer (English subtitles)