‘First Love’ mixes the zany and the predictable

Scott Powell

Editor’s note: This review may contain spoilers for the film. 

The first three minutes of Takashi Miike’s “First Love” see a drug dealer get his head chopped off by a machete in a dark Japanese alleyway and a young prostitute being stalked by a hallucination of her deadbeat father dressed in nothing but his tighty-whities and a bed sheet.

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If this is any indication of the kind of madness the next two hours have in store, that would be wrong. The rest of the film is infinitely weirder.

On the surface, “First Love” seems like nothing more than a retread of the ultra-violent, subversive Quentin Tarantino-style films that have become so commonplace in our contemporary film circuit. And, in some ways, this would be an accurate description.

Miike’s film, while enjoyable and well-made, is not much different than the wild, unhinged American thriller comedies from which it draws its inspiration. It has the standard cast of wacky, cartoonish characters whose hapless imbecility makes them loveable despite their overtly maniacal personalities. They all scramble to make sense of the hopelessly dark, absurd scenario they have been pulled into by some cruel twist of fate.

It’s fun. It’s zany. It’s unique. But it’s not anything particularly meaningful and profound.

However, “First Love” fully embraces and communicates this lack of profundity to its audience in a clear and comprehensible way, tying its absurdity together with a recognizable, fairytale-like plot that gives it a more global appeal.

Whereas its American counterparts often get lost in their own off-the-walls plot lines, trying to twist out some complex philosophical meaning that is rarely there, “First Love” underscores its wild story with a very simple, sappy love story that roots the film in a more universal narrative structure. This allows the audience to appreciate the wild, contorted and often confusing plot line without feeling the need to understand it completely.

“First Love” fully embraces and communicates this lack of profundity to its audience in a clear and comprehensible way, tying its absurdity together with a recognizable, fairytale-like plot that gives it a more global appeal.

It indicates that the plot is secondary. The actual events of the story are not what make the film unique. They are merely a backdrop for the gags and visuals.

This makes it so the audience doesn’t feel like it has to follow along with all the intricate twists and turns throughout the story in order to get the most out of their movie-going experience. They can still enjoy the zany mishaps on screen without having to think about or understand their connection to each other.

This instills the audience with greater confidence when watching the movie, which is one of the keys to not just a successful film in general, but a successful foreign film.

As the world becomes more globalized, it is becoming more important for us to develop methods of communicating that aren’t as dependent on the specific parameters of our particular language. By making a universal, archetypal story the baseline of his film, Miike communicates to his audience that appreciation for his film is not something they’re going to have to work for. It’s made purely for their enjoyment.

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In American films of its type, there’s a compulsion among filmmakers to implicate some philosophical, artistic meaning into their films, even when the films are just zany, wild escapist flicks. Miike, on the other hand, fully acknowledges and embraces his audience’s ability to appreciate his work, regardless of their background or knowledge of the film’s context.

Furthermore, Miike’s embrace of his film’s predictability allows the audience to experience the film fully, as it is intended to be experienced, without getting hung up on the kinds of things that usually hamper one’s enjoyment of a foreign film, such as subtitles.

The constant gravitation between subtitles and visuals can be tiring and often dampen the film’s overall effect on its audience. Movies are designed to be experienced as a cohesive unit, with the dialogue and visuals playing off each other simultaneously so as to inspire a single, unified emotion. When the audience has to constantly shift their focus between one or the other, they cannot experience or appreciate their combined power.

“First Love” is playing at The Lyric for a limited time. 

However, by Miike underlying his narrative with a more universal story, that of the knight rescuing the damsel in distress, the audience doesn’t feel the pressure to constantly be checking the translations at the bottom of the screen in order to follow along with the plot. Thus, they can more fully invest themselves in the performances and the visuals, which are the real meat of the film. They are the aspects of the movie that have the deepest impact. 

Film is a universal language. It is not bound by culture or country. In today’s world, where the film industry is becoming increasingly globalized and movies are reaching more international audiences, it should not be bound by its language or culture either.

“First Love” understands this, employing a universally recognizable narrative structure into its otherwise convoluted plot, instilling a sense of trust and faith in its audience that welcomes them to enjoy the film with greater confidence and ease.

Scotty Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus