The Nighthawk’s first Love (2022) review [Female Gaze – Japan Society]

Introduction

While Yuka Yasukawa is not a well-known director, some spectators might know her from her segment ‘Muse’ in 21st Century Girl (2018) and Kamata Prelude (2020). Now, she brings Hideo Jojo’s adaptation of Naoki Prize-winning author Rio Shimamoto’s romantic novel to the silver screen. Can she, once again, prove her skill and talent?

Review

Aiko Maeda (Rena Matsui), an engineering graduate student with a Nevus of Ota, has just been featured in a book called ‘lessons from my face’. Due to the book’s popularity, Misawa Press receives many requests to interview Aiko, yet, due to effects of the mark on her face on her subject, she politely refuses.    

Not that much later, she hears from Marie Hodaka (Lisa Oda) that there is a request to use the stories featured in the book to create a fiction film. She is opposed to the idea, but Marie succeeds in convincing her to meet Shota Tobisaka (Ayumu Nakajima), the director. While the first encounter does not work out that well, Aiko accepts Tobisaka’s subsequent invitation.  

The Nighthawk's First Love (2022) by Yuka Yasukawa

The Nighthawk’s first Love is a narrative that, with much elegance and in an understated manner, explores how the neurotic insistence of the demand for love can bring subjects together as well as divide them.

Yet, the narrative does not offer a simple exploration of this neurotic dynamic. Yasukawa’s narrative tries to reveal how such dynamic functions for a subject whose face is adorned with a birthmark. To do so, Yasukawa sketches out how this mark has affected Aiko’s subject. The first sign of the mark’s subjective effect is given when Aiko, after fleetingly looking at Marie’s face, tells her that she is a capable woman. While Marie merely receives this utterance as a compliment, Aiko’s manner subtly echoes her envy of Marie’s unspoiled body-image.  

This fleeting event enables us to unpack the very relational tangle Aiko was and is subjected to. It is clear that Aiko’s mark, as a real inscription on the body, disturbs the harmony of the imaginary field – She is never completely like the other, the blueish mark Others her from her semblable (Narra-note 1). Because she ultimately functions as an imaginary disturbance, she struggles to explore the social field, the space of relationships and symbolic commitments – just like Kenji Miyazawa’s Nighthawk (Psycho-note 1, Narra-note 2).    

The Nighthawk's First Love (2022) by Yuka Yasukawa

It is due to this dynamic that she breaks down and decides to run away from the dinner-meeting with the director. What Tobisaka unknowingly does while praising the cover-picture and her story is confront her with her struggle – a struggle to fit within the Imaginary and the Symbolic despite the Real. Given her emotional reaction, one might assume that her refusal to grant interviews or give her approval for a movie adaptation is driven by a desire to avoid further confrontations with her conflictual past (Psycho-note 2). Moreover, this dynamic makes her highly sensitive to signs (e.g. signifiers, moments of silence, … etc.) that supposedly reveal the other’s rejection or devaluation of her presence – In fact, one could even say, that she unconsciously searches for signs that reveal that she means nothing in the eyes of the other.

Tobisaka’s interest in Aiko is, first of all, imaginary. It is the encounter with her image – at the shoot and on the cover of the published book, that unexpectedly confronts him with her beauty. Yet, his interest is not due to raising her mark to the status of a fetish, but because he perceives this stain as an essential feature of Aiko’s facial elegance. For Tobisaka, the stain does not spoil her beauty, but determines it – for him, the stain on her face is the agalma that ensnares his desire. It does not repel, but attracts, which is evident by the way he interacts with her. Yet, given how sensitive Aiko is for signs of rejection and subjective devaluation, how can he convince her that his interest in her as subject is genuine and not merely a trick to persuade her to agree to the project and develop her character? Or will Aiko, unable to discern whether she is the object of his romantic interest or his research-object for his movie project, take the first step and reveal her feelings for him? Yet, can she ever resolve the lingering fear of being merely an object-of-inspiration for his love for cinema (Narra-note 3)?

The Nighthawk's First Love (2022) by Yuka Yasukawa

The composition of The Nighthawk’s first Love offers a nice blend of static and dynamic shots that is quite inviting for the spectator. Dynamism within the composition is both fluid and shakiness. As a matter of fact, Yasukawa thoughtfully applies shakiness to either breathe a sense of naturalness into the narrative or to elegantly signal the emotional impact certain moments have on Aiko as subject.   

The visual pleasure of the composition is ensured by the soft inviting colour-schemes and the natural lighting. The softness of the visuals is further enhanced by Yasukawa’s elegant play with depth-of-field and her use of lens flare. The presence of film grain, in this respect does not only add to the feel of naturalism, but also heightens the visual pleasure of the compositional whole.

The Nighthawk's First Love (2022) by Yuka Yasukawa

The naturalistic composition, coupled with the sparse but thoughtful use of musical accompaniment, creates a supportive frame upon which Rena Matsui and Ayumu Nakajima are able to breathe a sense of genuineness into the vocalized and unvocalized emotions of their characters and into the unfolding of their romance. One could even say that the natural colours and lighting-schemes reverberate the layered performances of Matsui and Nakajima.

In Yasukawa’s skilful hands, The Nighthawk’s first Love has become an understated and moving exploration of the impact the demand for the other’s love has on the subject’s ‘relational’ signifiers and acts and of the importance of one’s first love for one’s coming-into-being as subject. The power of Yasukawa’s narrative does not merely lie in her elegant composition, but in how her visual naturalism elevates the performances and reverberates the genuineness of the expressed emotions to the spectator.   

Notes

Narra-note 1: The Othering Aiko was subjected to as child caused, as Aiko reveal later, a mixture of feelings – the ‘lake Biwa’ comment by her classmates also made her feel a bit special. Moreover, she also underlines that what made this childhood moment traumatic is the association between her mark and a signifier that reverberates in her teacher’s response: that’s a horrible thing to say.

Narra-note 2: It is a poetic sequence that evokes the similarities between the nighthawk and her subjective situation and echoes her fear of disappearing as stain in the eye of the Other – a fear that her stain will always hinder the establishment of an intersubjective connection.  

Psycho-note 1: Let us underline that the notion of being an ‘imaginary disturbance’ has an external as well as an internal side. This subjective idea is not only corroborated by the subtle reactions of others who are confronted with this stain that ripples the imaginary, but also finds its confirmation in the way Aiko organizes her life.   

Psycho-note 2: Due to the mark on her face, any attempt to repress certain moments of her past is doomed to fail. The ripples she causes in the imaginary washes those moments of subjective pain ashore on the beach of her consciousness.    

Narra-note 3: Without revealing too much, we can underline that Aiko’s ability to feel loved depends on whether Tobisaka succeeds in giving her signs of his love whenever she is asking for them.

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