How Throwback Yakuza Film 'First Love' Pays Tribute to Japan's Coolest Stuntmen

first love

Takashi Miike has no idea how many movies he's made. "It's never been my goal, either, to make as many films as possible," the prolific Japanese filmmaker explained via a translator to Thrillist when asked if he had a number in his head. "I just ended up out of happenstance making a lot of films -- but making a lot of films also doesn't necessarily mean that any of them are any good." 

Depending on who you ask -- his fans, his critics, his publicist -- his feature films number in the nineties, or have already passed 100. Miike's extensive filmography is a genre potpourri. If you've seen one of his movies, it's probably his breakout horror from 2001, Audition, about a newly single man who holds an audition to "cast" his new wife. Or maybe you've seen one of his live-action anime or video game adaptations like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure or the hysterical Phoenix Wright.

His newest, First Love, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness bracket this year, follows a young boxer named Leo (Masataka Kubota), who stumbles into the middle of a bubbling dispute between the yakuza and Chinese Triads after his doctor discovers a life-threatening brain tumor when he collapses from a weak punch during a boxing match. The scheme, hatched by the hapless Kase (Shôta Sometani) and crooked cop Otomo (Nao Ōmori), to steal drugs from a high-profile, yakuza-affiliated distributor turns dire when Leo instinctively punches out Otomo to save a young, drug-addicted prostitute called Monica (Sakurako Konishi), and the two set off to find a place to hide. That barely scratches the surface; we're not even getting into the mostly naked dancing ghost and the bomb shaped like a stuffed animal.

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"When I was first approached with this project, it was kind of like the old style yakuza films that really aren't being made these days anymore," Miike said. "The previous yakuza film boom, it was over. I don't think the fans really wanted to see one." That first wave hit an apex in the '70s, with movies like Kinji Fukasaku's Battles Without Honor and Humanity and Street Mobster, and again in the '90s, with Rokuro Mochizuki's Onibi and Dead or Alive, from Miike himself. Yakuza movies, like American gangster movies, detail the bloody dealings within the seedy underworld of organized crime, and, like American gangster movies and other genres that have simply fallen out of fashion, you don't see them that often anymore.

"But at the same time," Miike said, "I really wanted to do it, I liked the idea. And I particularly liked the idea because the setting of this film was going to allow for, instead of just being a cliché, I would actually have it set against a love story that came about as a tangent to the yakuza story." 

It's not all guns and swords and blood spatters, though all of that is kind of Miike's signature. One of his recent films, Blade of the Immortal, is about a cursed samurai with worms in his blood that keep him alive through a series of ever-gorier battles with terrifying enemies wielding increasingly complex weapons. His notorious Ichi the Killer, about a mentally ill assassin forced to murder members of rival yakuza gangs, has been banned in several countries for its graphic cruelty. His work doesn't always feature violence -- during our interview, he mentioned that he has also been producing a Sunday morning Japanese kids' cartoon about fighting bad guys with kindness -- but, over his nearly 30-year career, he's gotten really, really good at it. One of First Love's craziest visual jokes features a character powering through multiple gunshots by rubbing cocaine into his wounds, and the final action-heavy setpiece is a shootout between the yakuza and the Triads set inside a hardware store. Most of the characters are running around with handguns -- minus the one-armed Triad who's known for killing with a shotgun -- while two of them face off with swords. 

That scene also features the film's funniest moment (that's worth leaving unspoiled), which includes Leo dodging stray bullets while listening to about five full minutes of sheepish voicemails. It had me nearly on the floor laughing, which is also something Miike, cultivating his irreverent sense of humor through various anime adaptations, has become great at. It's like whiplash: one second you're cringing at someone cutting into someone else, and the next you're laughing so hard at a visual pun or some character's reaction that you have tears in your eyes. 

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Don't let their expressions fool you -- this is a comedy. | TIFF

"It all comes down to the casting decisions that I make," Miike said when asked how he so deftly balances the humor with the not-so-funny stuff. "An actor may have their own baggage they come with, their own emotional baggage, and their own personal situations. An actress maybe has had a scandal in her love life. I really like to take those people and put them in these roles, where they can release that pent-up energy or frustration. And I think that actually ends up allowing a natural balance to be born." 

But, the coolest part of First Love is a scene he couldn't cast -- not exactly. It comes right after the hardware store shootout, when the three surviving members of the cast pile into a car and jump it from the top of a parking garage all the way down to the ground. Except, they don't really jump; a second before the car clears the roof, the scene becomes animated, a technicolor explosion in slow-motion where the car sails over the heads of their enemies before landing on all four wheels and skidding to a halt, where it lines right up with the live-action again. 

"People tend to think that that may have been done as a budget choice, but it's actually not cheap, to film an anime scene, or to produce an anime scene, either," Miike explained. There used to be a culture of car stuntmen in Japan, he said, in the glory days of the gritty classic yakuza movies, who would spin and jump their vehicles through streets or off of the roofs of buildings whenever a movie needed a cool stunt. But all of those guys who made their living doing insane things in cars have aged by now: "To put it bluntly, they're grandpas." Miike still wanted to have a crazy, unreal car stunt in his movie, as a tribute to them and to those movies, so he decided to animate the car jumping from the top of the parking garage into the street below. 

"Out of respect for those elderly stunt men in Japan, there's a part of me that wants to give them their last wishing desire to make this amazing car stunt, or car action scene, the kind that they would have liked to make working in Hollywood -- which was what they were all inspired by and that's the reason why they became stuntmen in the first place," he said. "I'd like to film something like that with them at some time while they're still alive."

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.