[…] It seems that Hirayanagi is just as critical of learning a new language as she is of committing suicide in order to escape one’s life. This presupposes that our identities are reliant on the language we speak and how we understand others through language.
[…] Hirayangi is direct in showing how all of the women, whether within or on the margin of these expected roles, fail not only for themselves but in the presence of one another.
Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature Oh Lucy! is no comedy, black or otherwise. There are funny scenes derived from the awkwardness of cultural exchange, speaking a new language, and being a foreigner, but the pathos one feels for Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), or for Japanese contemporary society in general, is not revealed through any lightness or humour. On leaving the cinema, a density of feeling lingers like several dark clouds that is neither funny nor absurd.
The opening shot provides the image of an ordered, individualised society crowded onto a train platform in military formation: straight, masked, quiet. The gloom of life is weathered on the faces and in the mono-chromatic grey of the frame. A man emerges from the motionless throng and flings his body in front of a train, spraying all that greyness with red. Hirayanagi immediately pushes us into the oncoming realities of what the outsiders have come to know but choose not to see in their exoticism of post-WWII Japanese culture: a society that is hanging in forests, throwing themselves in front of trains and off of cliffs, or swallowing pills. In the film we are privy to one successful suicide and three attempted suicides. Even though Hirayanagi questions the widespread cultural tolerance for suicide (70 apx people per day), it is nothing more than a bell toll in the background. We witness no deliberation in those characters who try, so exploring the option of whether to live or die is not the film’s focus.
A black cloud looms heavily over the life of Setsuko, a 45-year-old unmarried Japanese woman and her demented quest to feel through a radical and confused otherness. Setsuko’s 20-something-year-old niece Mika (Shiolo Kutsuna), enviable in both spirit and looks, convinces her aunt to take English lessons from a guy who teaches out of a massage parlour. The choice of location is pivotal here and it is one that allows us to understand the deep and desperate need of Setsuko to touch, feel and connect with another person. Like the parlour’s clientele, Setsuko’s emptiness pushes her into the arms of strangers, literally, as John (Josh Hartnett) her new “American English” teacher offers a disarming embrace to make her open up and relax. A fake name “Lucy”, a blonde curly wig, and a ping-pong ball are all provided as aids to embody this new way of speaking and posturing as a non-Japanese identity.
It seems that Hirayanagi is just as critical of learning a new language as she is of committing suicide in order to escape one’s life. This presupposes that our identities are reliant on the language we speak and how we understand others through language. The shallow aids of a sex worker (pseudonym, wig, ping-pong ball) are props to perform fail-safe transformations of self to protect against unhealthy contaminations. Setsuko’s immediate transformation into “Lucy” is more like a bewitching that breaks down into an illusionary obsession for John that stems out of confused social codes. The props, in this sense, fail to protect her from eventual emotional trauma. The instant of John’s hug, the wig-wearing and "mouthing" of a ping-pong ball, provoke a radical rupture in Setsuko. Just like the euphoria of the clientele’s “happy ending”, she feels an injection of excitement, newness and curiosity as Lucy, but she never finds a satisfying end to the perpetual dissatisfaction and loneliness that Hirayanagi has us understand is a cultural problem.
The role of women in contemporary Japanese society is explored through the relative ages of the different women. Setsuko’s retiring older colleague shows an ignorant pleasure in tending to her male boss’ every need. Even while Setsuko begrudgingly participates in this workplace “tea ceremony”, she teeters on the edge of the old ways that are conservatively observed by her older sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), and aims for the lifestyle of young Mika. In a frilly maid’s uniform, Mika coquettishly performs the role of sexual object, flouting the old values and escaping this framing of “woman” with John to California. Hirayangi is direct in showing how all of the women, whether within or on the margin of these expected roles, fail not only for themselves but in the presence of one another.
The plot is slightly rushed, leaving some holes in our understanding. Perhaps something was lost in the transition from the film short (which won 2nd place in Cinéfondation at Festival de Cannes 2014) to the feature film. If we make a strictly character-based interpretation of the film, we find inconsistencies within Setsuko’s general arc and her relationships. But, understood as a cultural commentary, she reflects the conditions of a dark cloud that casts its teleological shadow over her and a large percentage of Japanese women aged 15-34.
The filming of two vibrant cities gives over to a stark and ugly realism. In the case of Tokyo, we are never hypnotised by the flash of neon shiny tall buildings, nor are we aestheticised by minimalist interiors. Rather, we experience claustrophobia with Shetsuko who is crammed—if not jammed—into her tiny, very messy Tokyo apartment. We are carried along with the flow of expressionless workers on train platforms to be deposited into a crowded den of hostile colleagues, with faces just as grey. California offers no counterpoint. Setsuko (“Lucy”) arrives there to find an endless strip of highways, single-story shopping malls, rough neighbourhoods, cheap fast food and shabby motels. Even the coastal road from L.A. to San Diego shows the Pacific to be no glittering jewel. The blandness we encounter in both places echoes the dullness of Shetsuko’s life that is impervious to her attempts at becoming Lucy, the lover of John.
The promotion for this film is misleading. Hirayanagi touches us far more deeply than just provoking a few laughs. While the heavy themes draw out Shinobu’s strong dramatic abilities, it does not detract from her at times quirky performance.
Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie
First published: February 13, 2018