The Weekend Binge: "First Love"
Inspired by First Love and Hatsukoi, both seminal 90s hits by Japanese superstar Hikaru Utada, this J-drama is one of those heady, ultra-romantic shows that make you believe not only in the enduring power of love but in the mysterious workings of fate as well.
Yae Noguchi (Hikari Matsushima), a former star student, is now a single mother who tries to make ends meet by driving a cab in Sapporo. Harumichi Namiki (Takeru Satoh) is a former pilot who now works as a security guard for an office building. Once high school sweethearts, they are now ordinary blue-collar folk just trying to live their lives — until a fated meeting makes Harumichi realize that he might still be in love with Yae after all this time.
From their first meeting on a train to their near-hits as adults, and all the tragedies and triumphs in between, it would seem that Harumichi and Yae’s love story would be an easy one to resume, but alas, reality is quick to crush those dreams of easy reunion. After all, she no longer remembers him, and he is currently engaged to someone else. Their disillusioned lives no longer have the vitality and earnestness of youth. Life has now broken them both, and a thousand disappointments and failures have now gnawed away at their once-sacred hopes and dreams.
Meanwhile, Yae’s teenage son Tsuzuru (Towa Araki) is a budding musical composer who is utterly enamored by a dancer on social media. His helplessness in the face of his first love, which soon turns into his first heartbreak, mirrors the young love Yae and Harumichi once shared.
First Love is a sentimental and sepia-toned ode to everyone’s first love while remaining a truly romantic exploration of what happens when someone’s first remains someone’s only love. In one scene, Harumichi wistfully proclaims, “That's just how sudden first loves can be. Involuntary and unavoidable." This enduring fascination (and sometimes, obsession) with first loves and all the what-ifs surrounding them are a staple in East Asian dramas, and this show is certainly part of that long list of dramas that explore the pedestal of the ever-incorrigible first love.
Written and directed by Yuri Kanchiku, First Love is both a tender coming-of-age story and an exploration of midlife regret. But be warned: it is quite the grab bag of clichés that gleefully indulges in every nut and bolt of the genre: there’s the airport chase scene, temporary amnesia (amnesia! In this day and age!), hospital visits, car accidents, noble idiocy, and even forced separation. But whether that works for you or not, First Love is still proof that the formulaic still works if you lean into it, and boy, Director Kanchiku leans into it completely and unapologetically. Her chief glory in this show is making her characters wander off the screen and into the world. You’ll find yourself rooting for Yae and Harumichi as they meet, lose track of one another, and meet again over twenty years.
Yet Kanchiku’s ability to create a believable and vivid love story successfully avoids collapsing under its own weight by also launching inquiries into the nature of failed love, desire, pride, and the sense of shared loneliness that often draw people together. The show also throws in massive doses of reality to keep everything in check, including tsunami tragedies, failed space launches, and even the Iraq war. Interestingly enough, it even features the COVID-19 pandemic and how it upended so many lives and stories. This stoic look at reality interspersed with the tremendous sweetness that permeates every scene makes First Love turn a rare watch that make you wonder how the past few hours have simply evaporated.
Anyone who remembers the first time they watched Titanic with their significant other, cringes at their very first confession, or still has vivid memories of their very first kiss will find themselves glassy-eyed at how Director Kanchiku (whose directorial expertise is in light and composition) has set up First Love to capture those intoxicating youthful moments. Her stylistic allegiance to warm sepia tones is perfect for both the ongoing love stories and their '90s past. The thrill and wide-eyed kilig of falling in love for the first time and how infinite that feeling is, are captured so vividly and so skillfully by setting everything against lush snowfall, city noir, and gorgeous music. The grainy film feel used throughout the series makes you feel you are thumbing across an old photo album and is hypnotic enough to keep you watching (and wondering if your first love story was ever this visually stunning).
Takeru Satoh sheds his stoic Samurai X exterior to play a man torn between getting married to a woman who has been good to him and exploring a future with his first love. Both he and his younger version (played by Rikako Yagi) ably show the difference between wide-eyed infatuation and being battered by battle. Hikari Mitsushima (who plays his first love Yae) is also incredible to watch, and the chemistry she shares with Takeru is quite palpable onscreen. However, there seems to be a disconnect between the older Yae and the younger Yae (played by Taisei Kido), and one wishes that they would be more consistent in their mannerisms and attitude. This difference in styles makes one feel that both couples are too markedly different, and can get in the way of taking in the story as one organic whole.
Despite a few hiccups, First Love still succeeds as romantic catnip for those of us who love the slow-burn genre. The praise novelist Katherine Dunn for fellow writer Elizabeth McCracken is applicable here, and it is not a stretch to say that writer and director Yuri Kanchiku is a “true romantic, not the sloppy gushy kind who lie to themselves, but the robust ferocious romantic who sees reality with all its chinks, twitches, and zits, and finds it beautiful.” Which just about says it all.
9 episodes, available on Netflix