The madly prolific and often just plain mad Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has a knack for the deeply disturbing image: the inanimate object that suddenly leaps to life, the lower extremity that’s been severed with piano wire, the soup ladle protruding from where no soup ladle should protrude.
His latest movie, the nimble and sweetly disarming “First Love,” finds him in a comparatively mellow mood. The scariest thing we see in it — a bespectacled, middle-aged man wearing only a pair of tighty whities and running straight at the camera — may not be a freakout for the Miike pantheon. Even still, it’s hard to imagine another director who could invest the image with such a singular mix of hilarity and unease, all while maneuvering a drug-smuggling, car-chasing plot across Tokyo over the course of one long and very violent evening.
The half-naked man isn’t real; he’s a hallucination visited on the tortured psyche of his daughter, Yuri (Sakurako Konishi). Sold to a yakuza clan to work off her ne’er-do-well father’s debts, she’s been locked away and forced into drug addiction and prostitution. We meet this doe-like innocent around the same time we meet the movie’s main protagonist, Leo (Masataka Kubota), an emotionally reserved young boxer with his own tragic backstory: Abandoned by his parents shortly after birth, he has grown up to be a more-than-promising pugilist. But a tumble in the ring sends him to a doctor, who informs him that he has an inoperable brain tumor.
A terminally ill boxer; a sex worker with a heart of gold; two noble, downtrodden souls with no one else to turn to: Masa Nakamura’s screenplay boasts enough archetypes-verging-on-stereotypes to populate an old 1950s heart-tugger straight out of the Warner Bros. vault. Then again, I doubt that said heart-tugger would have featured a one-armed mafioso or a grief-crazed moll who goes on a crowbar-dragging rampage after her pimp boyfriend bites the dust.
But Miike, the most egalitarian of splatter-mongers, finds room for all of them and more. Although the title of “First Love” nods to the touching Leo-Yuri romance that becomes the story’s beating heart, the movie itself is the latest demonstration of its director’s talent for nonstop madcappery and ensemble crowd control. The plot is set in motion when the conniving young Kase (Shôta Sometani), a junior yakuza who suggests that even organized crime has its upstart millennials, secretly ignites a turf war between his gang and rival Chinese triads.
Kase’s scheme involves joining forces with a crooked cop and double-crossing Yuri’s pimp, unwisely provoking the anger of the aforementioned crowbar dragger, Julie (popular singer-actress Becky), who spends the rest of the movie in a state of furious, mesmerizing bloodlust. Yuri gets caught in the crossfire, and Leo, passing her by chance on the street, raises his fists and comes to her rescue. His own recent death sentence, it would seem, has inspired him to cast all inhibitions aside.
Miike orchestrates the ensuing fallout with breathless momentum and — remarkably, given the sheer number of moving parts — a narrative clarity that persists even when the third act starts to get bogged down in car chases, climactic duels and endlessly brandished weapons. By the director’s standards, however, and also by those of a yakuza-thriller master like Takeshi Kitano, the gore is fairly restrained; a couple of heads roll, but the most brutal action is either implied or cloaked in the shadows of Nobuyasu Kita’s cinematography.
Violence has long been a steady tool in Miike’s kit, as he has demonstrated over the course of a career that spans almost 30 years and more than 100 movies. He made his name in this country with early cult hits like “Ichi the Killer” and his 1999 horror masterpiece, “Audition,” though he deserved more recognition than he received for his later forays into martial arts classicism with “13 Assassins” and “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai.”
Compared with those pictures, “First Love,” with its chaste romantic interludes, slam-bang set pieces and occasional dubious-taste sight gags, might have seemed scrappy and tossed off. Instead it’s a joyous piece of filmmaking, a demented, multitasking little scherzo from a director who cranks out four new features a year on average and who never seems more relaxed than when he’s in an absolute frenzy. To watch it is to feel Miike’s industriousness and partake of his pleasure: The cinema is his first love and likely also his last.
(In Japanese and Mandarin with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Landmark Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles