First Love has its share of effective elements, but its well-worn plot beats are strung out over a runtime much too spacious for them to fill.
This review of First Love is spoiler-free.
First Love is what the kids these days might describe as “a vibe”. The nine-part Netflix series is based on two songs by Hikaru Utada – “First Love” and “Hatsukoi”, and it doesn’t really get more vibe-y than that, does it?
This longwinded romantic drama out of Japan is a familiar thing, perhaps to its detriment. All the usual beats are present and accounted for, some unnecessarily drawn-out or hampered by a needlessly convoluted structure, but there’s also some comfort to the predictability. First Love delivers those feelings of giddy young love, of painful separation, long absences, and sudden reconciliations in spades. It’s at least a couple of episodes too long, but it’s impressive in its construction, visuals, performances, and emotional power.
The love story of Yae Noguchi (Hikari Mitsushima) and Harumichi Namiki (Takeru Satoh) takes place over multiple time periods, swapping between actors and – that word again – vibes as it goes. It can be confusing in its execution, and sometimes too wavering in its focus. Yae has dreams of being a flight attendant but is forced to contend with the repercussions of an accident that affects her short-term memory; Harumichi becomes a pilot in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, which comes with a lot of moral and social responsibility. Both drift together and then apart and then together again through various circumstances, some outside of their control and some driven by their own decision-making, though most, admittedly, a little too fanciful and made-for-TV to be bought into entirely.
But the actors really sell all the ups and downs, which helps the audience to get invested, and there’s a lot of surface-level beauty to take in if you’re of a mind for it. Its themes of love, responsibility, and fate are well-developed across the episodes, meaning that when it counts, First Love can satisfy emotionally.
It takes a while to get there, though. I know I’m always complaining about the length of shows, but in an age of so much content, these things matter; they influence how people choose to consume things. First Love doesn’t have enough story to fill nine hours, and that becomes obvious quickly. Once that idea has settled in the plot beats do begin to feel a little reiterative, the flashbacks a little plodding, the interactions a little strained, and so on, and so forth, as though the show is simply idling to pad the runtime.
Not to be too downbeat, obviously. A healthy contingent of viewers are going to really love and relate to this, and good for them. The cast’s efforts are worthy of that attention, and word of mouth will benefit First Love. But I think it has a somewhat niche appeal, mostly suited to big fans of the genre or the talent involved – those looking for a nippy binge-watch or anything legitimately fresh will be mildly impressed but probably not quite satisfied.