There have been lots of movies called First Love, many of them Japanese. I know of three Japanese examples just in this century's first decade.
This one's a drama film, but not a romance. You couldn't call it groundbreaking, though it's quite nicely done in its own quiet way and I didn't mind it. The "first love" isn't the main character's, you see. Instead it's some bloke her mother was once attached to, except that things didn't work out and instead she married someone else. You get the idea. This is quite a slow film, for the most part coasting along on understated sentimentality, and occasionally it verges on cliche. The music is predictable, for instance, while the metaphor of cherry blossoms is common in Japanese films and literature. They bloom for a week every Spring, then they die. They're beautiful, but you've got to enjoy them while you can.
However that said, I'd probably give this a recommendation. It's okay. It's undercutting its own sentiment with some tart characterisation and a heroine who's capable of being borderline unlikeable.
The lead actress is Rena Tanaka, who'd won Best Newcomer from the Japanese Academy Awards in 1999 and then got nominated here for Best Actress. It wouldn't have occurred to me to recommend watching this film just for her, but she's not bad at all. She's playing a fairly challenging role, since her character is hard, pushy and often cold towards her parents. (She also has piranha eyebrows.) It would have been easy to take a dislike to Tanaka, especially when she gets so wrapped up in her self-appointed mission that she pretty much abandons her family, but the actress keeps you watching while staying true to the story's requirements.
You see, her mother's dying. Tanaka gets a strange idea in her head and sets off to make it happen, bludgeoning down any resistance she encounters from anyone at all. I was cringing pre-emptively at how this was all going to turn out, but to my surprise it's quite funny. That irrepressible old taxi driver is easily the most entertaining thing in the film, while Hiroyuki Sanada turns out to be a great foil for Tanaka when she eventually finds him. They're both as obnoxious as each other! They end up knocking some humanity into each other, but it's a lot of fun to see Tanaka up against someone nearly as blunt and abrasive as she is. He's not as single-minded as her, though.
It's an understated film, deriving its power from the way it undercuts itself. All these people are a bit broken and the film stays a million miles away from melodrama. Tanaka's scenes with her mother (Mieko Harada) in the hospital are delicate and rather lovely in how these two people just talk about things without ever giving way to Hollywood emotion. The theme is an inability to communicate, incidentally. Harada never gave Sanada a letter, all those years ago. Tanaka reads it in secret. Pretty much everyone has a regret or a personal matter in their past that they should have told someone, but didn't. Meanwhile Tanaka herself is first seen tearing up a love letter she's written because she finds it easier not to care, while her relationship with her father involves the absolute minimum of words (or less) and she hasn't even realised that this isn't normal. She doesn't think much of him, I think. On separate occasions she asks her mother why: (a) she chose this man for her husband and (b) how the two of them met.
Mitsuru Hirata is that father, incidentally, and we learn late in the film that he's the most wooden and yet most emotional person in the whole cast. I hadn't realised. I'd assumed never talking much was just him being a Japanese father.
The cast is strong, by the way. Sanada has become one of Japan's few international movie stars, to the extent that I think he's only done one Japanese film in the last decade or so. (I'm not counting English-language Hollywood films with a Japanese setting, obviously.) He was also a regular in Lost, which would have kept him busy. However there's also Mieko Harada, who was Lady Kaede in Ran for Akira Kurosawa. Brrrr.
I liked this film, although I'd have liked it better with a shorter running time. It's stretching its length a bit. However it's a delicate little piece that has its own kind of energy and is dealing with emotions and regrets without being seen to be sentimental about it. It also won quite a few awards, although we're only talking about film festivals, the Japanese Professional Movie Awards and things like that. I can see why. It's the kind of movie that you expect to win awards, but just saying that isn't the same thing as actually winning them. It's been well done. Fair play to them. Besides, I've got to respect a film that's willing to push its protagonist this far beyond most people's comfort zones, while at the same time keeping your interest in the noble but slightly mad thing she's doing.
Did I like Rena Tanaka's character as a person? Hmmm. Yes, I think so. She has some things she needs to address about herself, but then again she develops over the course of the film and in any case, she's doing all this for her mother. She's also cute when she catches Sanada out in something. "Ah!"