A year ago I reviewed the prolific Takashi Miike’s 100th film; First Love is already his 103rd. It is a deceptive picture, and not simply because the title (and its Valentine’s Day release in the UK) masks Miike’s signature brand of violent weirdness. The setup is a very straightforward crime tale in which a low-level gangster and crooked cop team up to steal drugs from the Yakuza, but it swiftly develops into a farce as nothing goes according to plan. The film’s success depends on how one approaches it. Perhaps surprisingly given its title, the film’s stumbling block is emotional resonance as the budding romance between call girl Yuri and young boxer Leo — thrown together by events around them — never really engages the audience, even if we do sympathise with their situation. As a farce, however, it is wonderfully entertaining, contrivances playing into Miike’s flair for excess with sufficient creativity to keep things fresh. Set over the course of a single night, the frenetic pacing undermines any emotional heft but aids the absurdity. The dramatic core may be hollow, but the offbeat circus around it is thoroughly enjoyable.
“No matter how bad the memory, sometimes just remembering it gives you incredible power.”
The 100th film from the prolific Takashi Miike is a stylish samurai tale adapted from the manga of the same name. The Ittō-ryū antagonists mirror Miike’s creatively unconventional style, seeking to destroy the traditional schools with a new code that incorporates all fighting styles and foreign weapons. This allows for variety through fights utilising different weapons. Where most sumurai heroes survive through supernatural swordsmanship, Manji is literally cursed to survive, which he often uses to his advantage in combat, allowing himself to be injured. He is more Old Man Logan than Wolverine. Indeed, in reluctantly taking on the protection and training of a young girl, Rin, there are considerable parallels with Logan. The inky black and white prologue features a higher bodycount than the entirety of most action films, although Miike then reins in this excess until the brutal conclusion. Not quite as strong as Miike’s own 13 Assassins, having an overtly unkillable protagonist eventually starts to drag. However, Anotsu, the softly spoken, implacable leader of the Ittō-ryū, makes for a fascinating foil that keeps us guessing about the eventual destination of Rin’s quest for revenge.
Concluding the Black Society Trilogy, we return to Shinjuku. Childhood friends, bonded over their outcast status due to mixed Chinese/Japanese heritage, grow into restless adolescents and run away to Tokyo in search of a better life. In typical style, Takashi Miike takes a standard coming of age setup and veers into much darker territory. After a Chinese sex worker steals their money, the boys are drawn into the criminal underworld to support themselves, leading to betrayal and violence. Like Rainy Dog, by its conclusion this feels more like a meditative fable, particularly with the overt parallel of a loan shark with a penchant for Shanghai folk tales.
Takashi Miike continues to explore cultural intersectionality with a Japanese hitman stranded in Taiwan and forced to work for a local crime boss. The near-constant rain creates an oppressive mood, and his connection with a local sex worker, Lily, built entirely on their shared desire to escape Taiwan begins to seem reasonable. His predicament makes him no friendlier to the son left in his care, who follows him like puppy despite his horror at his father’s work. Yet this is not played for sentimentality as the story veers more toward a fable, subverting cliché with Lily being the one to develop an attachment to the boy.