If you ask me how to describe First Love, my best and favourite way to do so would be to say that it is a mix of a little bit of Rumble in The Bronx, with a helping of Kung Fu Hustle (minus the gigantic bells), and a dash of Monty Python. In all of that, you get one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen in years. Directed by Takashi Miike, First Love is an action packed, hilarious thrill ride that delivers on humor as well as heart.
After getting knocked out for the first time in a boxing match, fighter Leo (Masataka Kubota) is left reeling when he learns he has a potentially fatal brain tumor. Experiencing an existential crisis, Leo questions what he’s supposed to do with his life knowing there’s now an expiration date. Looking for guidance, he goes to a fortune teller who tells him he needs to help someone other than himself to improve his life, and he in perfect health. Hearing this, Leo berates the fortune teller and stalks away in anger.
While Leo is dealing with the possibility of his impending death, Yakuza gang member Kase (Shota Sometani) and corrupt cop Otomo (Nao Omari) hatch the most complicated of plots to use Monica (Sakurako Konishi) as the scapegoat to double cross Kase’s boss and steal a shipment of cocaine. After taking Monica from the room where she’s kept as a call girl, Otomo loses her on the street when she suddenly starts screaming and runs away from him.
Fate being what it is, places Monica, Leo, and Otomo on a literal collision course when Leo, acting on instinct floors Otomo with one punch, knocking him clean out. With this one action Leo’s life takes yet another unexpected turn, and rather than running from the danger that Monica’s situation places him in, Leo decides to follow the fortune teller’s advice and help Monica, forever sealing their destiny. As they make their escape on the subway, Leo realizes that Monica seems to be experiencing hallucinations, and asks her what it is she sees.
Monica reveals that she sees her father, who sold her to a gang to pay off a debt, and that the hallucinations are a result of drug addiction. As an audience we laugh at the absurd image of her father appearing as an apparition with very bad rhythm, because who wouldn’t if they saw someone dancing wrong and awkward purposely, but when the tone naturally shifts to being more somber, we’re reminded of the reason for these vision occurring, and it works.
With a fast-paced plot that takes place over the span of one night, First Love would’ve been perfectly fine as an action film with entertaining fight sequences and comical high jinks, but writers Masura Nakamaru and Kubota treat Monica’s story with respect and sensitivity. Despite being the reason Leo decides to fight – literally and metaphorically – Monica is never treated as a prop. Far too often female characters who are sex workers – whether they became that way by choice or against their will – are dehumanized.
Further, whenever the topics of her drug addiction and abuse are referenced in First Love, it’s never as part of the comedy or at the expense of Monica’s development. Leo, listens, protect and doesn’t mock her when she’s having an episode. Monica in turn finds her confidence and protects him not because she sees his life as being worth more than her own, but because it’s her way of establishing her newfound agency and standing up against those, who seek to use her.
In another win for strong female characters, there’s Julie (Becky) and a Chinese henchwoman who turn out to be a kickass surprise. Julie is a woman not to be crossed, and when men underestimate her, she’s quick to show them the error of their ways. When her boyfriend is killed due to Kase’s recklessness, Julie moves forward with the sole objective of obtaining revenge and has no qualms taking out anyone who gets in her way. And it’s fun to see the look of fear on mens’ gangsters faces when they realize she has them in her sights. Julie is a great example of what happens when tropes are thrown out the window, and the script flipped. It’s not often we see women be the ones take a path of vengeance, especially if their target is a member of a major crime syndicate.
As dawn approaches, everyone caught up in Kase’s plot gone awry, end up in a hardware store where some of the best and funniest fight scenes I’ve seen in years take place. The way everything plays out is like watching the most entertaining example of Murphy’s Law in action. In the midst of all the madness and mayhem there are a series of scenes involving phone calls Leo receives from his neurologist, that become funnier each time the phone rings. One scene in particular with Kase that was especially hilarious as it brought to mind the “Tis but a flesh wound” scene from Monty Phyton & The Holy Grail and showed what great comedic timing Sometani has.
Doing their best to survive the mayhem, both Monica and Leo decide that they’ll do what they have to survive everyone, and anything trying to kill them and not go gently into that not so good night. As characters both Leo and Monica are two young people going through extremely difficult times emotionally and mentally, and Kubota and Konishi (in her first lead role) balance each other, grounding their characters and the film when it’s needed, by providing the emotional and softer aspect of the film, they create the heart of First Love.
First Love is in select theaters now.
Carolyn is a Freelance Film Critic, Journalist, and Podcaster – and avid live tweeter. Member of the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), her published work can be found on But Why Tho, The Beat, Observer, and many other sites. As a critic, she believes her personal experiences and outlook on life, give readers and listeners a different perspective they can appreciate.