Just ten years ago I was a complete novice when it came to Japanese live action cinema. I watched whatever I could get my hands on, pretty much clueless of how it all tied together. Itsumichi Isomura's River of First Love [Amemasu no Kawa] was one of those random finds that I ended up liking a lot. But how does a film like that hold up 10 years (and some 1000 Japanese films) later? Surprisingly well it turns out, though it's clearly not without flaws.
The period between 2000 and 2005 was quite lucrative for Japanese distributors. The West wanted Asian films but lacked a broader understanding of their cinema. It led to some very strange and misguided choices (like the release of early Shinji Iwai films and Fujiwara's Ido), but also (and more interestingly) a slew of local Japanese releases featuring English subtitles. Clearly they were hoping for massive oversees import, something that obviously never happened.
River of First Love is basically a romantic drama made for the local market. Sure enough the film has a few elements that make it stand out from the pack, but unless you're partial to these type of films you're not going to be blown away by it. To make things worse I watched Isomura's Matataki not too long ago and I was pretty appalled by the quality of that film. Needless to say, my expectation were quite low when I sat down to watch River of First Love again.
River of First Love tells one story spread over two different timespans. The first part follows Sinpei and Sayuri during their younger years. Sayuri is a deaf-mute, Sinpei a little simple-minded. Even so, they share a very strong bond together, Sinpei being the only one able to talk to Sayuri. Once they're older though, reality sets in and Sayuri is promised to another boy, one who has a better chance of providing for her. Meanwhile Sinpei is sent on a trip to Tokyo in order to soften the blow.
Visually the film walks a fine line between acceptable and sentimental kitsch. The rural Japanese landscapes and sunny surroundings make for a warm and comforting setting that Isomura gladly exploits. The camera swoops can be a bit much though and the CG is not always up to par. That said, there are some nice looking dream sequences and the film never goes completely overboard on useless CG, so in the end it all kind of levels out. It's not a film that will win you over with its visuals, but if River of First Love gets to you than they do add something to the romance of the film.
The soundtrack had a very similar effect on me, though I have to say it stood out a bit more. Isomura isn't very subtle in the way he uses the score, but he does hit the right notes at the right times. The music almost a bit Hisaishi-like, with its beautiful melodies, recognizable hooks and soft piano sounds. It suits the film really well and without it, I think I would've had more trouble getting into the whole dramatic and romantic part of River of First Love.
The acting is a little overdone, though it's so consistent that it seems by design rather than lack of talent. It gives the film an almost manga-esque feel, so better make sure you're prepared for it when going in. With veterans like Hiroshi Abe and Miki Nakatani present you might expect more natural performances, instead you'll find broad gestures and overstated facial expressions. That said, when it really matters the core talent of the actors does shine through, giving the drama just enough swing to make it effective.
River of First Love has its ups and downs, but Isomura makes certain all the key moments work. The dramatic and romantic stretches may not be all that special or unique, but in the end they succeed in what they set out to do: support a good, feel-good romantic film with some slight dramatic impulses. The scene at the very end (Ayase's outburst near the river) is the cherry on the cake, finally convincing me that River of First Love was in fact worth revisiting and not just a sin of the past painted over by nostalgia.
That said, it's a film that caters to fans of light-hearted Japanese dramas, doing little to even try and persuade people outside of its niche. Also, I'm not sure how I would've rated the film if this would've been my first time watching it. There's enough intrinsic quality here for a solid rating, I'm just not entirely sure if it would have made the final cut. That said, if you have a soft spot for Japanese dramas, give this one a chance and you might just be surprised by this little-known gem.