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First Love

Keisuke Koide and Aoi Miyazaki in First Love.
  AKA: Hatsu-Koi
Japanese: 初恋  
Year: 2006  
Director: Yukinari Hanawa  
  Cast: Aoi Miyazaki, Keisuke Koide, Masaru Miyazaki, Rena Komine, Tasuku Emoto, Munetaka Aoki, Yuya Matsuura, Shunji Fujimura
  The Skinny: Using a real-life unsolved mystery as a major plot point, First Love stays true to its title, detailing an understated tale of young love set amidst the turbulent student demonstrations of 1960s Japan. Part-romance, part-heist movie, part-window into the past, Yukinari Hanawa's 2006 film isn't an overwhelming success in any of these three categories, but taken together as a whole, First Love adds up into a fairly involving experience, a feat achieved in no small part due to the acting talents of leading lady Aoi Miyazaki.
Review by Calvin McMillin:

To be sure, Yukinari Hanawa's First Love is a heist film like no other. The title of the movie itself is perhaps the first hint that the big robbery is less important than the resolution of the love plot. Really, when a movie begins with a teenage girl asking, "What's the time limit on a wounded heart?" you know you're not in Ocean's 11 territory anymore. And yet even though budding teenage romance ends up trumping the thrills of cinematic grand larceny, the film's heist isn't a throwaway plot device. It's actually based on a real-life crime famously known in Japan as "Sanoku-en jiken" ("The 300 Million Yen Affair").

On December 10, 1968, three-hundred million yen was stolen from bank employees transporting the money in an unmarked car. The robbery occurred in only a matter of seconds and not a single person was hurt. The crime was the biggest heist in Japanese history, leading to the largest manhunt ever undertaken in the country. The statute of limitations on prosecuting the crime has since expired, and even until this day, no one knows for sure who pulled off this legendary crime. First Love, however, speculates as to the identity of the real criminal.

Based on Misuzu Nakahara's autobiography, First Love stars Aoi Miyazaki (Nana, Su-ki-da) as Misuzu, a quiet, alienated teenager who seeks out the company of local heartthrob Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki) and his band of misfit friends. This tight-knit group spends most of their days hanging around a jazz bar called "B," and the introspective Misuzu slowly, although not completely, starts to come out of her shell. As the film develops, we begin to understand Misuzku's true connection to Ryo as well as her reasons for seeking his company. Eventually, she begins to fall for his friend, Kishi (Keisuke Koide), who in many ways seems like an anomalous figure in the group. When tragedy strikes this once-merry band of friends, Kishi hatches a plot to strike back at the government with a huge, unprecedented robbery, but he needs Misuzu's help to see it through to the end. The two begin practicing for the heist, and through the multiple rehearsals, they begin to fall even more deeply in love. Of course, history would suggest that the heist was a success, but was it really? What happened to these two alleged accomplices? That is the story that First Love seeks to trace in its final moments.

First Love is a bit of an odd duck. The romance is palpable, but it's awkward and buried just under the surface. It's all about what isn't said between the two leads, rather than the depiction of any huge declarations of love or fits of passion between the main protagonists. In a sense, that makes the film a variation on the "Pure Love" subgenre, although First Love spools out in a decidedly non-formulaic manner. In some ways, such restraint is commendable and it was nice to see a romance shown in a more awkward, realistic way. But in other ways, that is perhaps the most frustrating part of the movie. One may end up hoping for a payoff that the film never quite delivers.

Still, without the benefit of much dialogue, Aoi Miyazaki turns in another fine performance as Misuzu, able to convey in facial expressions what few actors could with pages of dialogue. Standout scenes include an unconventional, yet entirely welcome and joyous motorcycle lesson from Kishi's elderly mechanic friend (Shunji Fujimura, from Death Note) and her character's last act discovery of a crucial piece of information involving Kishi. Overall, Koide Kesuke is fine, but is unremarkable as the object of Misuzu's affection. It's Miyazaki's real-life brother, Masaru Miyazaki who turns in the more charismatic performance as Ryo, the consummate rebel without a cause.

The heist aspect of the film becomes increasingly important in the film's later portions, and the rehearsals are definitely fun to watch. Naturally, they don't come across in the slick, professional manner that typifies most heist movies, but that's part of the charm. History says that they'll pull it off, but somehow, the filmmakers are able to make us doubt even a foregone conclusion such as that. For a while there, the depiction of the consequences of the heist came across as a bit too protracted and narratively frustrating, but it's eventually resolved (kind of) by the aforementioned last act discovery. Ultimately, First Love is part-romance, part-heist movie, and part-snapshot of an era. It's not exactly an overwhelming success in any of these three different categories, but somehow, the parts add up to a fairly satisfying whole. (Calvin McMillin, 2007)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
CN Entertainment
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc
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