Released only a day after the record-breaking Wednesday, people seem to have inadvertently overlooked the Japanese Netflix Original series First Love: Hatsukoi and that needs to change.
(This article contains mild spoilers.)
One cannot forget, one does not remember.
It’s 2018. A man is supposed to meet his fianceé’s father for the first time and he is running late. In his taxi ride on the way there, the radio plays a familiar song: Utada Hikaru’s megahit from the late ’90s, “First Love”, and an avalanche of memories of his first love hits him and he asks the driver to go back.
Somewhere in the same city, the girl from his memories is now a woman: a mother and divorcee who, after suffering a tragedy that took some of her memories years back, sets aside her dreams of becoming a flight attendant and is now a solitary taxi driver.
These are the cards our star-crossed lovers have been dealt with. Memory has caused Harumichi Namiki to hesitate to move forward at the expense of those around him. And forgetting brought Yae Noguchi into the business of taking people to their destinations while neglecting the journey towards her own.
What happens when their paths once again converge?
Every moment is a piece of life’s puzzle.
“Life is a big jigsaw puzzle”, the series suggests in its first minute. And so we are handed the pieces of Harumichi and Yae’s lives piece by scattered piece, casually shifting from 2018 to the late ’90s at the drop of a hat. This format does not take away from the experience, though; it actually enhances it. Because aside from the fact that these transitions are done so smoothly that it’s never disorienting, the way the story withholds some of its puzzle pieces only to reveal them at the perfect time makes for better storytelling.
“You will always be inside my heart.”
The series was inspired by Utada Hikaru’s songs, “First Love” and “Hatsukoi”. So while the series features a lot of good Western music, it’s parts where Utada’s songs come on that definitely ups the emotions to a hundred. And because that debut album of hers charted internationally and most millennials have a relationship with these songs, it only takes a few notes into “Automatic” and “First Love” to transport us back into our youth. And trust: especially in the show’s context, her songs may cause tears.
Give in to nostalgia
First Love does a great job at making sure it appeals to our collective memory by effectively recreating what it was like to grow up at the turn of the millennium. Renting VHS cassette tapes? Extending your arm out the window to get a signal for your flip phone? Going crazy about Titanic? Millennials who lived the era will definitely be in for a cozy trip down memory lane.
To say that First Love’s production design and photography are great is an understatement. This show did not pull any punches in utilizing set, color, lighting, and camerawork to aid its storytelling. Everything on the screen perfectly communicates the story’s mood and tone and it is breathtaking to behold.
A powerful ensemble
Not one performer drops the ball on this show. You may have known Takeru Satoh from his turn in the live-action franchise of the much-beloved manga and anime Rurouni Kenshin, but this series further proves his depth as an actor. Meanwhile, you will instantly become a fan of Hikari Mitsushima who plays the heartbreaking older Yae Noguchi. Just one look at her and you won’t be able to help but root for this gentle, sunny woman carrying a void in her heart.
And as for their younger counterparts, Taisei Kido and Rikako Yagi deserve to be bigger stars for their pitch-perfect portrayal of a young couple’s journey from courtship to that crossroad that leads them into adulthood.
First Love charts a love story that spans from 1998 to 2022 with characters that find themselves flying a fighter jet and one with a fixation on space exploration. Their locations are all so crazy beautiful, too. Hell, at one point we even get a sequence of a rocket ship launching into space! Needless to say, all these elements demanded a budget. And boy, I’m in awe of all of it. And the best thing about these is it’s not even done to show off or serve as a distraction from a mediocre plot. All of it amply contributes to the characters’ arcs.
It’s time we see how the Japanese do it!
There have admittedly been so many stories about first love set in the recent past that trigger nostalgia. If you’re into K-dramas, I’m sure the Reply series or Twenty-Five, Twenty-One immediately come to mind. But while these shows are great in their own right, First Love offers a take on it that we haven’t seen so much. It’s quieter. It doesn’t center on a bubbly, funny female character. It’s not as humorous for sure. Its tone is unapologetically somber from the get-go but it’s just absorbing, if not more.
After watching First Love, I listened to Utada Hikaru’s songs over and over. I thought of all the loves I’ve lost. I reminisced about being young and smiled at how easy it was for me back then to love and, stranger to the jadedness of adulthood, say I love you so easily without a tinge of doubt. Weren’t you that way, too? We didn’t know what we were talking about when we said those words first, but we might’ve meant them more then than we do now.
Have you watched First Love? Tell us what you thought about it in the comments!