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OH LUCY!, a serious comedy about love, identity, and escaping a rut, started as a short film that garnered a great deal of acclaim on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. Filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi parlayed that, and the endless lucky breaks it generated, into a feature-length film that continues the adventures of the title character, a middle-aged Japanese woman. Setsuko, aka Lucy, was living a life of constant, low-level irritation as an office lady, a job from which women usually retire before the age of thirty. Setsuko’s rut of an existence comes in for a seismic shift, not because of the suicide she witnesses in the film’s opening shot, but rather because of the English lessons that she’s cajoled into taking by her flibbertigibbet of a niece who can no longer afford them. The unconventional classes are less compelling for Setsuko than the teacher, John (Josh Harnett) a hunky and affable American who gifts her with a new name, Lucy, and a curly blonde wig to make her feel like a fellow American.
One thing leads to another, and Setsuko finds herself in California, cranky sister in tow, searching for John and, in the process, finding a whole new outlook on life.
When I spoke with Hirayanagi, we started with the obvious question of what it’s like to turn a short into a feature before moving on to the one question that changed her entire perspective about storytelling; the subtle (and not so subtle) differences between language and communication; the importance of what’s left out of a script; and making her feature-film debut with an international production.
What stood out most from out talk was how she feels that she is perceived: in Japan (as too American after her years of living here), and here in America as too Japanese. Like her film, Hirayanagi poses questions of cultural identity that don’t necessarily have answers, but that spark even more, and even more fascinating, questions.