Forensic psychologist Yuki (Keiko Kitagawa) is interviewing a young murderer for a new book. The girl, Kanna (Kyoko Yoshine), has apparently murdered her father and told police that they will have to find out why she did it. As Yuki begins loooking into Kanna’s past, her relationship with her mother and father, and her mistreatment at the hands of several men, it awakens dark memories of her own. Yuki is also forced to confront lawyer Kasho (Tomoya Nakamura), the brother of her husband Gamon (Yosuke Kubozuka), with whom she shares a secret.
Based on a novel by Rio Shimamoto, Tsutsumi’s film is a detective thriller in which the details of the case are less important than the reasons behind this crime. Kanna’s depiction early on, with a bloody knife and her seemingly apathetic response to killing her father suggests a psychopathic personality, but we soon discover the various traumas that led her to this moment. Yuki appears to be heading in the other direction, with a composed front disguising past heartache and emotional stress. The confrontations between Yuki and Kanna, either side of Perspex in a prison interview room are a highlight of the film, with outstanding performances by both Keiko Kitagawa and Kyoko Yoshine. The supporting cast are also great in nuanced roles, in particular Hoshi Ishida as Yuji, a young man who had a relationship with Yuki when she was younger. The script can be quite on-the-nose, driving home its themes of how childhood trauma can affect people and the horrors of child abuse. This often comes across in large expository scenes where they make sure that you understand what is happening; it may have benefitted from a more subtle approach. The film doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, with paedophilia, child abuse and exploitation, self harm, and sexual abuse being a large part of the plot. These things are mentioned in a very matter-of-fact way, which is appropriate for the psychologist and detectives objective viewpoint and also makes them more terrifying by the apparent ubiquity and mundane nature of these actions. The best moments of the film come with these revelations, which are genuinely heart-breaking. However, the film sometimes struggle to keep up a sense of tension and balance. In particular it ties together the stories of Yuki and Kanna in a way that is not wholly satisfactory, drawing a parallel between their stories that never quite rang true. In terms of the tone also the piano and strings score often seems overly sentimental, lacking the darker tones suggested by the story and being at odds with what is happening on screen. The film does feature some exceptional cinematography, utilising the interview room at the prison to great effect with the reflections of Yuki and Kanna showing their connection.
“First Love” is a film about childhood trauma and how it affects development. Both Yuki and Kanna suffered difficult incidents involving their fathers and other men, with the constant threat of sexual violence causing severe emotional detachment and unease in society. The film portrays these things in a subtle yet powerful way, with Yuki’s father gazing at schoolgirls, or the disturbing drawing of a young Kanna beside two naked male figures. One of the most troubling elements of the film is Kanna’s relationship with Yuji, which the film perhaps had too little time to delve into. Helped by Hoshi Ishida’s performance, the courtroom scene towards the end of the film is a devastating depiction of a man who has failed in his duty of protection to this young girl, his shame and regret evident. “First Love” can be a difficult watch due to the subject matter, but the excellent cast and beautiful cinematography make it worthwhile. It has very little in the way of answers, but in terms of raising awareness of these issues it does a spectacular job.