Despite its humorous and endearing moments, there is an unavoidable darkness that lies beneath the surface of Oh Lucy!. This eccentric portrait of a distressed and confused middle-aged Japanese woman marks filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut into feature films. Based on her short of the same name, Hirayanagi sets out to expand on her initial narrative and round out her thematic notes and characters.
The film follows Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a chain-smoking, depressed office worker, unsure of her own identity. When her niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) convinces Setsuko to take on the debt of her non-refundable English class, Setsuko is introduced to a new and titillating glimpse of an entirely unfamiliar culture. The class is led by a gregarious American named John (played wonderfully by Josh Harnett), whose unconventional methods attempt to immerse his students in what he considers the true American experience: relaxed and casual, complete with hugs, high fives, and a lot of “What’s up.” Setsuko is quickly christened with a new American name, Lucy, and given a short, curly blonde wig to wear.
After only one class, Setsuko begins to discover a true lust for life she previously hadn’t felt. Though she eventually ditches the blonde wig, it seems that she wants nothing more than to be Lucy. After learning that John has suddenly quit teaching to move to Los Angeles with Mika in tow, Setsuko, along with her abrasive sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), begins her journey to track them both down. The two manage to find John, and then they all set out to track down Mika, who recently took off. This is where the film really hits its stride.
Setsuko has a changed, almost electric energy about her once she is in America. Her decisions are bold and capricious, and she’s unfazed by the jarring culture clash. The film illustrates these tensions extremely well as Setsuko attempts to fully embrace the American lifestyle and her new identity. This identity Setsuko forms, however, is clearly a confused and ambiguous one, growing into something unknown even to Setsuko herself. This notion is thankfully never spoon fed. Rather, the delicate nuances throughout the film show us that Setsuko is lost in her own body. She does not want to be the quiet office worker in Japan, but she doesn’t quite know who she does want to be. Maybe she wants to be Lucy, or maybe she just wants to be anyone but herself.
What is so striking about this transformation is that it is one we do not often see. This isn’t your typical coming of age tale with bright eyed teens. This is a very unglamorous and messy look into a middle-aged woman’s attempt to find herself after years of complacency. Setsuko’s search for her identity, whether she likes it or not, cannot be undone or stopped once it starts. The underlying struggles of sadness, rejection, and pure confusion fully round out this film, which also maintains consistent humor. Regardless of age, race, identity, or any other factor, there is a relatable truth at the heart of Oh Lucy! that makes this film so accessible. Though it might not always be a pleasant experience, it’s comforting to have access to such a familiar human experience of trying to find yourself in a chaotic and unpredictable world.
Oh Lucy! opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.