Review: ‘First Love’

Was a lonely teenage girl the lynchpin in the biggest robbery in Japanese history? Question is posed and left for auds to decide in "First Love," an intriguing combo of crimer and coming-of-ager. A moderate B.O. performer on June local release, pic can expect further fest invites and limited arthouse exposure. A Hong Kong engagement is set for Nov. 16.

Was a lonely teenage girl the lynchpin in the biggest robbery in Japanese history? Question is posed and left for auds to decide in “First Love,” an intriguing combo of crimer and coming-of-ager. In his first outing since 1996 debut “Tokyo Skin,” helmer Yukinari Hanawa fashions a vivid look at Japan’s young radicals in 1968, but loses steam as he attempts to wrap things up after the big score. A moderate B.O. performer on June local release, pic can expect further fest invites and limited arthouse exposure. A Hong Kong engagement is set for Nov. 16.

Still famously known in Japan as “Sanoku-en jiken” (“The 300 Million Yen Affair”), the never-solved case from 1968 involved a payroll car being driven away in broad daylight by a thief posing as a motorcycle cop. Case was officially closed in 1975 and the culprits were declared immune from prosecution in 1988. Source material here is a recent autobiography by Misuzu Nakahara, who claimed she played the fake policeman.

Orphaned 16-year-old Misuzu (Aoi Miyazake) is an unwanted addition to the house of her rich relatives. Free to wander late at night through Tokyo’s Shinjuku ward, the girl enters an underground jazz club frequented by her charismatic brother Ryo (Masaru Miyazaki). After making all the wrong early moves, Misuzu is accepted by Ryo’s friends, who are engaged in either radical theater or confrontational political activities.

After a violent demonstration splinters the group, so-far quiet Kishi (Keisuke Koide) steps forward and proposes Misuzu participate in a robbery. She agrees to do it not for political reasons, but because it is the first time she has felt wanted.

Heist itself is noteworthy for its matter-of-factness. Without upping the pulse as might be expected, Hanawa shows Misuzu as a fumbling impostor who somehow manages to make off with the largest haul of cash in her country’s history.

The remainder of the film, roughly a quarter of its running time, is much less assured, with far too much meandering through loose ends.

With little dialogue and a riveting stillness, Miyazaki turns in stellar work as a lost soul whose actions have nothing to do with money and everything to do with winning the affection of others. Playing her screen sibling for the third time (following “Eureka” and “Riyuu”), her real-life brother Masaru Miyazake also impresses as the clique’s prime mover.

Smoothly lensed by Junichi Fujisawa in rich tones and with suggestive pools of darkness on the edge of frame, pic looks a treat. Ace production design and costuming evoke the heady spirit of the age without showing off.

First Love

Japan

Production

A Gaga Films production. (International sales: Gaga Communications, Tokyo.) Produced by Shusaku Matsuoka, Shigeo Minakami. Executive producers, Shinya Kawai, Yuka Hoshino. Directed by Yukinari Hanawa. Screenplay, Hanawa, Tetsuro Kamogawa, Harumi Ichikawa, based on the novel by Misuzu Nakahara.

Crew

Camera (color), Junichi Fujisawa; editor, Nobuko Tomita; music, Coil; production designer, Iwao Sato. Reviewed at Hawaii Film Festival (Eastern Showcase), Oct. 22, 2006. Running time: 115 MIN.

With

Aoi Miyazake, Keisuke Koide, Masaru Miyazaki, Rena Komini, Tasuku Emoto, Munetaka Aoki, Shunji Fujimura.
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