Takashi Miike is quite deservedly regarded as one of the all-time great film-makers, described by Quentin Tarantino as “the godfather of ultra-violent, get under your skin movies.” A nihilistic auteur who has tackled every genre imaginable in film and TV, yet made each a unique genre unto themselves.

During a master-class held at the Singapore International Film Festival 2019 Miike described his film-making as, “My style is that I have no style,” adding, “Some people have iconic directors in their mind, or they want to make particular styles of films they have seen before. I think this is a waste of time and energy,” going on to say, “I think what people think about my films depends on the film they see. It’s all different and opinions are all different.”

Miike got his first break during the Japanese V-Cinema (direct to video) boom of the early 90s, with newly formed production companies eager to hire young film-makers willing to work cheap making low-budget action movies. His directorial debut was “Red Hunter: Prelude to Kill“, although “Eyecatch Junction” was released prior to this in 1991.

Ten more films followed up until 1995 and his first theatrical release “Shinjuku Triad Society“. Over the next few years he alternated between V-Cinema, bigger budget films, and TV. His international breakthrough finally came with the release of “Audition” in 1999. A seminal horror film that many consider his masterpiece, me included.

By the mid-2000s he was making as many as eight films per year. Although in the last ten years or so he has been far less prolific, with only one or two per year; also moving into Japanese blockbusters, such as “13 Assassins” and “Blade of the Immortal“. In 2017, with the latter, he joined the ranks of the very few film-makers to have made 100 films.

However, unlike many film-makers the years have not dulled his vision. “In every sense Miike represents cinema without limits,” Mitch Davis, co-director of the Fantasia International Film Festival, told IndieWire back in 2017. “In terms of experimentation, in terms of boundary-pushing and in terms of a seemingly limitless range of styles and approaches from one production to the next. It’s just astonishing to think the number of films he’s made now, and the fact that he’s showing no signs of exhausting his creative energy. He never stops working and yet he never phones it in.”

No better illustration of this is his most recent release “First Love“. A gritty, hyper-realistic, character driven, gangster infused love story, shot through with a vein of his trademark jet black humour.

One night in Tokyo a young boxer, Leo, meets his ‘first love’ Monica. They find themselves caught up in a drug smuggling scheme, pursued by a corrupt cop, the yakuza, and a female assassin.

Now, as his many fans will be well aware, this being a Takashi Miike movie any synopsis or description really does not come even close to describing it. For those that have never experienced this truly unique genius “First Love” is a good place to start due to it being one of his most accessible films.

Returning to themes he has explored countless times over the years, yet still feeling as fresh as still do the aforementioned “Audition” and “Dead or Alive” over 20 years later. “First Love” shares many similarities with the latter, and more noticeably “Shinjuku Triad Society“.

Beginning with a beautiful almost dreamlike feeling scene of a young boxer preparing to enter the ring. A few minutes in and it is clear we are in Miike’s universe, albeit, as the narrative progresses, with a far more romantic feel. He explained the reason during the master-class, “Right now in Japan there are two trends, there are the blockbusters and there are very light love stories where you can have a good cry. So my stories of outsiders are sort of chased away from [cinemas]. But I want to show that even outsiders can have a good love story.”

As always he masterfully, and economically, balances and fleshes out every aspect of the story and characters, making it hard to fully describe, yet never confusing while watching. As is usual with Miike, some of the most memorable moments come from the supporting characters. That being said, every cast member from the leads to the support give superb performances.

Even though, as is usual with Miike, it is primarily character driven there are some wonderfully staged set-pieces, reaching exhilarating, dizzyingly absurd, and blood soaked heights. He said that he often includes extended fight scenes with multiple characters simply because he wants to give actors with even the smallest of roles a chance to shine. “I want them to feel good about themselves. I want them to go home and think, “This beer tastes better than yesterday.”

At times beautiful, yet dark melancholic cinematography emphasises the terrific production design, adding to a grounded realism, accentuated by the music score. For all his stylistic touches there is, as always in a Miike movie, substance and depth within the action, violence, and wackiness.

While not quite reaching the heights of his very best, “First Love” demonstrates that he can still deliver the unexpected, and is highly recommended to fans, and those wanting a starting point to experience a truly gifted film-maker who shows he still has lots more to give.

Without a doubt one of the best films of 2020!

Karl Franks