Middling noirish navelgazing romance / heist caper, intermittently beautiful but eventually collapses under its own weight.
There's been much said about the stagnation, if not the death of Japanese cinema over the last decade, at least when you're comparing it to South Korea. That you could level the same claim at the film industries of pretty much everywhere in the world is something that seems not to be mentioned quite so often. All of which is of little more than tangential relevance to the matter at hand, that being the noir-tinged romance-cum-sixties-revivalist First Love (or Hatsukoi), which will do little to stave off any inflated claims of immanent national film industry meltdown.
Misuzu Nakahara (Aoi Miyazaki) is a sixteen year old schoolgirl living with her Aunt, who displays little to no interest in her. Before long she's hanging out late nights in jazz club, intriguingly named "B", clued in to its existence by her estranged brother Ryo. She falls in with his ragtag bunch of misfit mates, the budding writer, the born fighter who's happy to take on anyone, authority figure or not, the clown who displays an uncanny acceptance of stereotype as "the comic relief" and Kishi (Keisuke Koide), the seemingly aloof, leftist agitator. Ryo functions as the leader of this little cadre, largely due to his impressive, Riki Takeuchi themed hairstyle.
While this sounds worryingly like a setup for a knockabout coming of age gang caper, what you get is a languid exploration of Misuzu's character as it forms itself in front of our very eyes, with more often said between the lead characters in this with looks rather than words. Misuzu falls, with a shy, barely mentioned love for Kishi. This sounds like it needs some sort of a crisis, so let's have Kishi come up with a scheme to rob a factory's bonus payments transport of 300 million yen and involve Misuzu in the scheme. Yeah, that'll do it.
Essentially First Love is more of a mood piece than anything else, which makes it all the more frustrating when it breaks the mood it's created with some silly motorcycle riding montage. Dunderheaded fractional moments aside, there's a lot of very lovely, delicately artificed shots. Much of the film has a bleak, urban prettiness that's next to impossible not to be captivated by.
Thing is, every half hour or so it drops its cleverly shot mask and becomes something altogether more ordinary for a while. There's nothing wrong with that as such, except that without the gloss one can't help but notice that there's not an awful lot going on underneath the veneer. Almost as soon as you notice this, the moment's gone and it's back to being wonderful again, but eventually there's a point where I'd ran out of the inclination to re-invest myself in it. Once bitten, and all that.
Perhaps that's why it feels that First Love runs out of steam a good half hour before the credits start to roll, and in a film that's only a shade under two hours this spells trouble. There's a little too much navelgazing moping around towards the film's conclusion, although I suppose that's only to be expected with Kishi and Misuzu realising that should their heist be successful they can never see each other again.
This story, as it is claimed in the real-world Misuzu's 2002 novel, is the True Story of Japan's biggest robbery, although we're all too well aware of what that claim usually means regarding truth and the passing acquaintance thereof. A part of me hopes vehemently that it's genuine, especially with such leftfield "where are they now" afterthoughts over the closing credits as "Went around the country in a wheelchair. Died in an auto accident" attached to some of the players.
From a technical standpoint at least, I have to dole out plaudits aplenty. If there's a better engineered film I've seen this year I'll be damned if I can think of it. However, there's more to films than that and there's something missing in the soul of this film that's needed to make it truly exceptional. It's more worthy than about eighty percent of movies released this year, but that says more about the state of the other films than the quality of this.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.
Keisuke Koide (Kishi)