Tetsu WatanabeEdward AttertonHonami SuzukiYoshiko Nakada
The First Timers
Also known as: Ichigensan
Medium: film
Year: 2000
Writer/director: Isao Morimoto
Writer: David Zoppetti [novel]
Country: Japan
Language: Japanese, English [very occasionally], French [one character], German [one line]
Actor: Honami Suzuki, Edward Atterton, Sokyu Fujita, Keizo Kani'e, Yoshiko Nakada, Toshi Shioya, Tetsu Watanabe
Format: 122 minutes
Url: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0248099/
Website category: Japanese
Review date: 23 August 2011
I'd expected to find this one irritating. It's two hours of an Englishman living in Japan, speaking Japanese and having to have "yes, I really do know how to use chopsticks" conversations with the locals.
That's what I thought, anyway. Fortunately though that's only half the story. Edward Atterton's character does indeed fit that description, but in fact the film's just as much about Honami Suzuki, the blind Japanese girl with whom he gets involved by volunteering to read books to her that haven't yet been translated into Braille. The odd thing is that they're in Japanese. In fact Atterton is studying at a Japanese university and can read them, but he sounds wooden. You'd think Suzuki would have been better off finding herself a native speaker, but in fairness: (a) she likes him, and (b) it feels unrepresentative of the miscellaneous odd jobs you can find coming your way as a foreigner in Japan.
On that subject, there's also a bit where Atterton gets employed by a French TV company, doing a program on yakuza. That's another such odd job, making his life more colourful for a few days.
This is a truthful film, but a slightly pointless one. It feels accurate. I believed in the characters and I thought it portrayed their lives very well, to such an extent that there are passages where I was pretty sure the scriptwriter was putting down his anecdotes from real life. (This is good, by the way. Anecdotes are funny.) However it's not doing much of particular interest and it's not really going anywhere.
However within those constraints, it's good. I liked it.
It's not a big movie, in any sense. It doesn't have a wikipedia page. It's the only film to date from this writer-director, while both of its leads later quit the business. Honami Suzuki was a big name thanks to the TV series Tokyo Love Story, but she'd since got married and got pregnant, so this would be her last job before taking a ten-year break to have a family. (She's just started acting again, incidentally.) Meanwhile Edward Atterton did a decade of acting from 1993-2003, then after that did one TV episode in 2005 and then nothing. He's vanished off the face of the earth. I'm also going to assume that this was a choice on his part, since he didn't seem to be having trouble getting work until then. He sounds interesting, having read anthropology at Cambridge before moving to Japan and getting a black belt in karate. He's got a solid CV, which incidentally includes Joss Whedon's Firefly.
It's also based on a novel. David Zoppetti won the 20th Subaru Literary Award with his first novel Ichigensan (The First Timers) in 1996, which is surprising since he wrote it in Japanese. He grew up in Switzerland with an Italian background, a German-speaking father and an American mother, so from childhood he was fluent in German, English, Italian and French. Naturally he later moved to Japan and became a novelist in yet another language again. There's a lot of autobiography in this film, with Atterton's character for instance having had Zoppetti's childhood, while the film's depiction of life as a foreigner in Japan felt truthful to me. (However I'd have recommended not writing all in capitals on the whiteboard in his English class. Japanese people find that harder to read, believe it or not.)
It's also unusually international. The director is a Japanese painter who emigrated to Australia in 1981. The original novelist is Swiss. The film also had an English lead actor, a Korean singing the theme song and an Australian director of photography who didn't speak any Japanese.
It's a gentle film with occasional mild humour. It would be hard to object to it, unless of course you were looking for a stronger ending. The actors are good, with in particular Atterton wildly exceeding my low expectations of English speakers in Japanese films. There were very occasional moments where his accent got mechanical or I'd suspect he wasn't completely on top of his dialogue, but for the most part he's making his language skills look superb. Incidentally, don't believe any internet warnings you might see. "WARNING: Contain nudity and Sexual Content, this movie may not be suitable for some viewers." What a load of codswallop. It contains a small amount of mild nudity and that's it.
Would I recommend it? Not really, but I wouldn't warn you off it either. It's a delicate, honest time capsule of Zoppetti's experiences as a foreign student in Kyoto, complete with news events on TV like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela. (1990 was quite a year.) I enjoyed it, but I was also aware that it was slow and it had me glancing at the clock halfway through. It's nice. What it's trying to do, it does well.