First love, or hatsukoi, is a big topic in Japanese teen films, as well as almost everywhere else in popular culture. It’s attractive because of its innocence and purity, as well as the almost inevitable fleetingness of the relationship — if indeed, it is one; someone is often far more besotted than the other.
The term “puppy love,” which conjures up images of youthful crushes that briefly bloom and inconsequentially fade, is not quite equivalent, since hatsukoi can leave a deep, lasting mark.
That is certainly the case with Noboru Aihara (Osamu Mukai), the hero of Saiji Yakumo’s “Momose, Kocchi wo Muite (My Pretend Girlfriend),” a 30-year-old author who has returned to his hometown to promote his first novel.
Noboru runs into Tetsuko, a former classmate who is now the wife of Miyazaki, one of Noboru’s childhood friends. As they talk in a coffee shop, with Tetsuko’s young daughter in tow, the conversation turns to their high school days. Back then, Tetsuko and Miyazaki were a popular couple atop the school pecking order, while Noboru was a social zero with one real pal — the porky, and equally girlfriendless, Tanabe.
One day Miyazaki calls Noboru into the school library to make an unusual request: Be the pretend boyfriend of Momose (Akari Hayami), a cute girl with retro-style bobbed hair (see photos of 1920s star Louise Brooks for reference).
Noboru had glimpsed Miyazaki and Momose having an intimate chat at the town’s train station, and Miyazaki fears that gossip about this tryst will reach the ears of Tetsuko (Anna Ishibashi). At the same time, he doesn’t want to end his fling with Momose, so he asks Noboru to serve as her “beard” – that is, fake romantic partner.
Noboru, who has long looked up to the older, cooler Miyazaki, and feels he owes him big-time for “saving my life” (exactly how is left unexplained), reluctantly agrees. Momose, a bossy type, immediately takes charge of this phony relationship, grabbing Noboru’s hand as they walk out the school gates to the curious gaze of classmates — and immediately dropping it with disgust once they are on the street.
“Your hands are sweaty,” she complains.
Despite this and other comic moments, “My Pretend Girlfriend” takes Noboru’s dilemma seriously, especially when it becomes obvious that he has feelings for his imperious tormentor. It’s not hard to see why: He is spending much of his free time at school, day after day, in the company of a hot girl who turns on the charm when others are around and talks to him frankly when they aren’t. Yes, she has little but contempt for everything — from his unkempt hair to his lamentable taste in clothes — but she also opens up to him emotionally in ways she can’t with others, including Miyazaki.
Though not exactly a friend, he has certain benefits. Even so, he wants to end this awkward farce sooner rather than later — and so does Momose. But she also can’t help noticing that Noboru is more honest and decent than his so-called friend, Miyazaki, whom she alternately loves and hates.
Based on a novel by Eiichi Nakata, “My Pretend Girlfriend” may have a hard-to-swallow premise (nerdy high school boys like Noboru are about as likely to fly as find themselves with a fake girlfriend like Momose) but Noboru’s hopeless love for a girl who loves the wrong guy is common in any society, country or century.
The film, however, is uncommon in its sympathy for both its ostensible hero and the girl who causes him so much misery. Momose, played by former pop idol singer Akari Hayami, in her first starring role, is more than just willfully — and in the end, pathetically — clinging on to a guy who is out of her league; she is capable of feeling and caring for others, beginning with the members of her household, run by her struggling single mother.
She is also not afraid to say what she thinks or to go for what she wants. She has more in common with the bold, eternally desirable Ms. Brooks than just her hairstyle.
The film’s end is implicit in its beginning, but Momose nonetheless remains something of an enigma, just as so many first loves are, in memory: Frozen in a moment, forever out of reach.