"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.