There are four suicide attempts in Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut feature film Oh Lucy! The first one succeeds; it's the catalyst that spurs Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) to reexamine her reclusive life.
It doesn't take long to inventory the constituent parts of that life. Her small apartment, where she’s made enough space to watch TV, is a hoarder’s dream. She has an ambivalent relationship with her sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) and her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna). On the crowded Tokyo subway, Setsuko commutes to her job as an “office lady” with a tightly secured face mask. It’s yet another symbol of her inability to let the outside world in.
In her publicist’s office in downtown San Francisco, Hirayanagi describes the duties of an office lady. “It's a secretary," she says. "Basically, they do the same thing and they never move up on the career. They pour tea, make copies and assist the workforce, who are mostly men.” It's a job performed by 20-somethings. “Usually they quit after the age of 30. So for her to be 43 years old and doing that, she’s an outcast.” These personal and professional doldrums are key to understanding what Setsuko does next.
Mika calls her aunt on the day that Setsuko witnesses a suicide. Her niece asks her to take her place at an English language school — and to pay the niece directly for the remaining tuition costs. In need of a change, Setsuko reluctantly agrees. Hirayanagi explains her conception of the character’s motivation to step away from her daily routine, “I feel like the universe is always trying to present you with an incident or to make you meet people or something you need to deal with. And this time she took it.”
Setsuko finds the school in a seedy urban alley and meets the handsome American teacher John (an entirely relaxed Josh Hartnett). He hands her a curly blonde wig, renames her Lucy and embraces her. The combination of speaking in English, donning a silly wig and that hug facilitates the release of Setsuko's pent up emotions. It's a familiar filmmaking trope: unleash a character’s restricted id and remove them from their comfortable, if drab, circumstances. Following Setsuko's personal transformation sparked by running toward, not away from, a chaotic world, Oh Lucy! joins films like Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours and Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.
But Hirayanagi’s approach takes into account, as she says, “the fact that what people usually present to the world is completely opposite of what they are.” Once smitten with John, Setsuko — or her inner Lucy — pursues him back to the United States, a foolish and courageous act she never would have undertaken before. The director cast Shinobu Terajima in the part after seeing her in Ryuichi Hiroki’s 2003 film Vibrator.
“She does this fearless, daring acting, which I don't often see in Japanese actresses,” Hirayanagi says. “The producing partner is NHK, which is like the BBC of Japan. Because of them I was able to approach Miss Terajima. She's an A-list actress, and when they gave me the list of actors for me to consider, I immediately thought she would be the only person who can perform this.”
Terajima projects Setsuko’s stifled longings as expressively as she does Lucy’s ecstatic, frenzied liberation. Hirayanagi, who also wrote the script, describes the moment when she begins to change, after the man commuting suicide brushes past her before he dies. “He happened to be behind her, but to me it's not a coincidence," she says. "People attract each other. Darkness, I think, attracts darkness. I'm talking here about synchronicity. And then I feel like all these five characters are basically the same people, attracted to each other on this journey.”
The director says that she has experienced suicide in her circle of acquaintances, even witnessing one when she lived in Singapore. “It's not like this subject is so far from me. Everybody goes through those dark moments," she says. "In a way the suicide is telling her, ‘I know who you are.’ That's why he provoked her.” But the journey Setsuko makes is away from him, away from loneliness and death, and towards an unconventional, bewigged renewal.
'Oh Lucy!' opens March 16 in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Rafael.