J-drama ● Review: First Love
English Title: First Love – Hatsukoi
Japanese Title: First Love – 初恋 [lit. first love]
Director(s): Kanchiku Yuri
Screenwriter(s): Kanchiku Yuri
Studio: C&I Entertainment Released: 2022
Runtime: 9 episodes, 49m – 1h 05m each.
Starring: Mitsushima Hikari, Satoh Takeru, Yagi Rikako, Kido Taisei, Araki Towa, Aoi Yamada, Kaho, Hamada Gaku
My Verdict: A solid series, good but not great. Decent writing and performances. Nicely shot. Worth watching if one is interested in the genre.
● Inspired by Utada Hikaru’s songs “First Love” (1999) and “Hatsukoi” (2018), the story follows Noguchi Yae and Namiki Harumichi who dated in high school but have since gone their separate ways.
● In the past, Noguchi (Yagi Rikako) was a good student with aspirations of becoming a flight attendant, whereas Namiki (Kido Taisei) was less academic. Thankfully, he is not depicted as a stereotypical troublemaker even though he had some of those traits.
● In the present, Noguchi (Mitsushima Hikari) is a taxi driver who lives alone. Namiki (Satoh Takeru) works as a security guard after having spent some years in the air force. He lives with his fiancée Arikawa Tsunemi (Kaho).
● The narrative shifts between the “present” set mostly in 2018 Hokkaido and the past mostly from around 1999 onwards, following the main characters’ lives as they transition to adulthood.
● Throughout the series, the present is linear whereas the past, partly because they are expositions that are related to the present, sometimes shifts but is still mostly linear.
● By contemporary drama standards, the series tries to be realistic by being mundane, in part adapting the “slice of life” approach. It is nicely shot, sometimes pushing the boundaries into “arty” territory but without overdoing it. It also helps that it is mostly set in Hokkaido, thus avoiding the densely populated cities that are commonly seen in dramas and films. Anime fans will recognize the approach.
● Unlike the cinematography and film editing, the soundtrack pushes a little harder and therefore is a little too noticeable at times. It’s nothing jarring but would benefit with a subtler approach.
● Since the series tries to be mundane, it is predictable at times but without ruining the show. This is because the characters are sufficiently relatable to keep the audience interested. Obviously, Namiki and Noguchi meet up again in the present and this occurs quite early. In other words, the series is not about how they might bump into each other again.
● To avoid getting too bogged down about Namiki and Noguchi, the narrative includes their families and other people in their lives. There is a secondary arc regarding Noguchi’s son Kosaka Tsuzuru (Araki Towa) and his crush Komori Uta (Aoi Yamada). There is even a little bit about Noguchi’s fellow taxi driver Urabe Otaro (Hamada Gaku) who admires her. As we follow Namiki, a little about Tsunemi is revealed. None of these are poorly executed but the series could make more use of them.
● Given the genre, there are some clichéd dramatic scenes and conveniences but it is to the credit of the writer and director that these are not constantly abused. Too many dramas and films (ab)use these, especially if they are resorted to too early in the narrative, but Kanchiku tries to save them for the right moment.
● On balance, the series is well-written and nicely executed. It’s good but it’s not great. Despite whatever predictable elements and clichés, it does keep one’s attention. The performances are fitting. Although there is generally nothing wrong with the way the story ends, the pacing of the last episode can tighten a little and spend a little (more) time on the minor characters.
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