‘Hatsukoi — Natsu no Kioku’

Another slice of first love, with a bitter twist

by Mark Schilling

First love, or hatsukoi, is a perennial, popular theme for seishun eiga (“youth films”), ranking right up there with tragic early death.

Several Japanese films even have “hatsukoi” in the title, though their stories are not always about puppy love. Tetsuo Shinohara’s “Hatsukoi” (2000) starred Rena Tanaka as a teen who tries to find her cancer-stricken mother’s first love (who was not her father), while Yukinari Haniwa’s “Hatsukoi” (2006) featured Aoi Miyazaki as a lonely girl who falls under the spell of a moody student radical and takes part in his plot (based on a real-life 1968 incident) to steal ¥300 million.

The latest “Hatsukoi” film, directed by Show Nobushi, is based on the novel “First Love” by Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev and mainly follows its boy-pines-for-girl plot line, with some localized twists. Though its buff young hero rides a mountain bike and its flighty heroine is umbilically linked to her cell phone, the film has a timeless feel.

This is partly due to the 19th Century source material and partly due to Nobushi’s take on it, which is both traditionally humanistic and stylistically conservative, with no flashy editing tricks or hand-held camera gymnastics.

Hatsukoi — Natsu no Kioku
Director Show Nobushi
Run Time 105 minutes
Language Japanese

A theater director with a penchant for plays based on classical literature, Nobushi has focused instead on the emotional core of the drama — that is, the agonies that ensue when a naive adolescent boy falls heads over heels for a coquettish older girl who is thoroughly aware of her sexual power, if not in complete control of her feelings.

This is a common scenario in real life, though an unusual one for films of this genre in Japan, which typically target women and accordingly feature love-struck female protagonists. It is also a source of much male bitterness, since the besotted guys tend to be sensitive types, while the inconstant objects of their one-sided affections often end up with louts or Lotharios.

Our hero, Yusuke (Kenta Yamada), begins the film as a 15-year-old innocent who has moved from Tokyo to the countryside with his sickly mother (Tomoko Ishimura) and handsome, personable father (Ken Ishiguro), who are running a pension.

He soon encounters Rio (Hanako Takigawa), a 17-year-old beauty who lives with her stepmother (Yumi Asou) at a small winery, which is an unwanted inheritance from Rio’s deceased father. Rio is a temperamental sort; Yusuke’s first, fatal glance of her is through a window she has just broken in a fit of pique. She is also bored and decides that Yusuke will do for a playmate in her romantic games. Meanwhile, her easygoing stepmom, whom she cannot stand, lets Rio do exactly as she pleases.

This may sound like a setup for Yusuke’s sexual initiation, but he takes offense when Rio invites another guy to what he had hoped would be a private tryst. When she tries to pit the two boys against each other in a competition for her favor, he storms out, his pride hurt, though he can’t forget her.

Rio, however, is not just another mean girl, but is suffering from the loss of both her birth parents and the lack of any emotional anchor in her life. Then she finds one — Yusuke’s father, though he is not at first aware that she is being anything but over friendly. She, however, thinks she’s in love, and he begins to respond. Yusuke is in for the shock of his young life.

Yamada, whose credits include the youth dramas “Battery” (2007) and “Dive!” (2008), plays Yusuke as a raw, good-natured kid who is less a fool than unformed: He’s ready to be blind-sided by love.

Takigawa, a pinup idol who moved into TV and film acting, impresses as the willful, flirty, and wounded Rio. For all the character’s irritating behavior, Tanigawa somehow keeps us from hating her, as much as we want to tell the clueless Yusuke to run in the other direction.

Not that he would ever listen. Did I at that age? Did you?