First Love (Hatsukoi) review – action, romance and a beheading or two

By Alix Turner
Published: May 7, 2020 (Last updated: February 7, 2024)
First Love (Hatsukoi) review – action, romance and a beheading or two


An epitome of Takashi Miike’s entertaining and violent film catalog, First Love combines a slapstick yakuza crime story with young romance. And I love it.

Leo (Masataka Kubota, Tokyo Ghoul, Death Note) is a modest young boxer, promising, but with no sense of any hope for the future. Monica (Sakurako Konishi, Mio on the Shore) is an equally hopeless young woman who has been sold to gangsters by her father to pay off a debt and is now tied to them by addiction as well. First Love is about what happens when their worlds collide: Leo’s renewed sense of purpose, Monica’s glimpse of freedom… oh and this is all going on against the backdrop of a gangland double-crossing and its fallout.

Takashi Miike has over one hundred director credits to his name, and whether you are drawn to watching this, his most recent, or not may depend on whether your experience of his catalog is something outrageous like The Happiness of the Katakuris, something brutal like Audition, or something else completely. Miike’s range has been huge, though his style is usually considered “extreme” in one sense or another: he makes films to excite and entertain and does a thoroughly good job of doing so here.

First Love is a gritty, noir film at first, focusing on introducing the key characters and setting up the scene in which they will meet. But even from the opening, we can tell there are going to be some OTT elements, as a severed head is sent rolling down a doorstep. The characters themselves start off as fairly mundane tropes: middle-grade yakuza, gangster’s moll, damsel in distress… though as the story progresses, all but the central two become exaggerated into caricatures, making some violent scenes truly funny. A crooked cop has no luck; a drug pusher (the endearingly wide-eyed Shôta Sometani) has to deal with plans that keep going more and more wrong; and my favorite, Julie (a demented Becky) uses her screams as much as a sword to declare vengeance.

In the middle of this whirlwind, Leo steadily falls for Monica, while she deals with hallucinations and drug comedown. These two are perfectly cast, with a very believable connection. You can understand how Leo feels when he is out wandering at the start of the night, and understand still when he declares he can “do anything”. Monica’s character is especially well-written, covering fear of abandonment, craving for familiar people as well as struggling with enforced addiction. Her development over that one night in Tokyo may be a little far-fetched, but it’s inspiring.

First Love overall is inspiring too, with a tone that progresses smoothly from a melancholic start to a joyful conclusion; with a story that weaves people together as if in a dance. And the action scenes, the chases, the swordfight in the hardware store of all things! Takashi Miike has worked with cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, writer Masa Nakamura and composer Kôji Endô before, but not together: it’s as though he’s put together a fantasy film-making team for a legacy film. He mentioned in his letter to fans about this film: “Movies can be cruel, that is why I don’t want to miss a little sign of hope. That is me, and my moment is First Love.”

And now I want to see everything else he’s made that I can find.

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