Blond ambition

Atsuko Hirayanagi on Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay's role in Oh Lucy!

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Atsuko Hirayanagi on Oh Lucy! executive producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay: "I started warning people. Because I don't want them to feel betrayed."
Atsuko Hirayanagi on Oh Lucy! executive producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay: "I started warning people. Because I don't want them to feel betrayed." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Atsuko Hirayanagi's wanderlust-y debut feature Oh Lucy!, co-written with Boris Frumin and based on her short film, stars Shinobu Terajima (Kôji Wakamatsu's Caterpillar) with Josh Hartnett (John Logan's Penny Dreadful), Kaho Minami (Zhuangzhuang Tian's The Go Master), Shioli Kutsuna (Masatoshi Kurakata's Neko Atsume House), and Kôji Yakusho (Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel).

Executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay with terrific work by costume designer Masae Miyamoto (Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone In Love), Oh Lucy!, which had its world premiere at last year's Cannes Film Festival and received the Sundance Institute NHK award in 2016, takes us on an unexpected road trip which made me recall a line from Jean Renoir's The Rules Of The Game (La Règle Du Jeu).

John's (Josh Hartnett) gives an English lesson to Tom (Kôji Yakusho) and Setsuko, aka Lucy (Shinobu Terajima)
John's (Josh Hartnett) gives an English lesson to Tom (Kôji Yakusho) and Setsuko, aka Lucy (Shinobu Terajima)

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), during a subway commute on her way to work in a Tokyo office, one morning becomes witness to a suicide. Before jumping in front of the train, the man parts the crowd of surgical face mask wearers and whispers "goodbye" into our heroine's ear.

Director Atsuko Hirayanagi sets the tone with a snapshot of our time: People take photos with their phones, right after they were bystanders at a gruesome scene. Glass boxes exhibit smokers and silently shame them for their unhealthy vice. Work environments are filled with toxic gossip and grinding, faux friendly routines.

A maid cafe with exaggerated attention that turns customers into toddlers is the place where Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), Setsuko's niece, works. She has an urgent proposition that includes English language lessons, that consist of hugs and instructions on how to loosen your jaw the American way.

John (Josh Hartnett), the unorthodox teacher, through some hocus-pocus, turns Setsuko into her blond-wigged alter ego Lucy. In a kind of haze, she makes plans to head off to California, reluctantly accompanied by her sister from hell, Ayako (Kaho Minami) as she goes in search of a better life abroad.

Atsuko Hirayanagi on Setsuko turning into Lucy (Shinobu Terajima): "I was almost like a conductor and she's hitting all her notes."
Atsuko Hirayanagi on Setsuko turning into Lucy (Shinobu Terajima): "I was almost like a conductor and she's hitting all her notes."

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your main actress is great.

Atsuko Hirayanagi: Shinobu [Terajima] is phenomenal. She is very big in Japan. She comes from a long line of Kabuki family. We had a really interesting experience on set. We are in sync. I was almost like a conductor and she's hitting all her notes. I had goosebumps all the time watching her do it.

AKT: And Josh Hartnett?

AH: He's a great collaborator, very smart. He gave more layers to the character from the man's perspective. Very nice guy and daring.

AKT: Let's start with the beginning and the subway station. The point in time is so much the now. People are wearing surgical face masks, something happens, people take photos with their phones, smokers in glass boxes - your film on the one hand has an archival quality, almost, capturing this moment in time. Then there is another side.

AH: Interesting! I didn't perceive it that way. It's funny, I'm learning about my film after I made it. I always try to come up with clever ideas, clever answers. That's how I understand my film after the fact that I made it.

AKT: It is about now.

John with Setsuko as Lucy: "It also gives some kind of power in Japanese society to have a blond wig."
John with Setsuko as Lucy: "It also gives some kind of power in Japanese society to have a blond wig."

AH: Yes, but I think it comes with the character. She lives in now. Everything in her life comes to the movie, so that becomes archival, the word you used.

AKT: Then it goes in the other direction as well. I am thinking of Mika's [Shioli Kutsuna] job. Wow, is that place your invention?

AH: No! Just do Maid Cafe google and you'll have so many girls in French maid costume.

AKT: And you didn't exaggerate anything?

AH: No, no, I didn't exaggerate.

AKT: She calls customers "Your highness" and when they want her to stop pouring they have to say "MEOW"?

AH: They really do silly things there. In a way it's like the English lesson, you know. They give you so much attention to make you feel special. And then you come out of your shell. There are many subcultures like that in Tokyo, especially. They want to connect with people but unless you do some kind of performance, like, you cannot break out of your shell and be more relaxed about it.

I think that's why things like that exist. Akihabara is a mecca for electronic shops and anime, manga, computer games and all that stuff are in that area called Akihabara. And there's a Maid Cafe. So many of them. A lot of geeks go there. Shy people go there.

Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) with her niece (Shioli Kutsuna) at the Maid Cafe: "They really do silly things there."
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) with her niece (Shioli Kutsuna) at the Maid Cafe: "They really do silly things there."

AKT: Mika casts a spell on the tea "Be more delicious!" It's so absurd. I understand the attempt of closeness.

AH: It's also treating them like a little kid. Mommy would do that "It's going to be very delicious!" You know? A bit of magic for you. I think that's the idea. But that I didn't exaggerate.

AKT: But then the English lesson!

AH: That I created!

AKT: That slightly fishy location for the English lesson is an interesting choice.

AH: The setting exists. They basically do sexual service in small compartments. So males go there as if they're going to a spa or something. They call it massage parlour.

AKT: In your film, you are putting the English lesson there.

AH: It's similar I feel. Your innate need to release something. To go there and being touched by someone.

On John inspiring Setsuko: "I think it's nice to have escape in life, don't you think?"
On John inspiring Setsuko: "I think it's nice to have escape in life, don't you think?"

AKT: Setsuko is immediately taken in by that, whereas the Maid Cafe and her niece [Mika] didn't work. This is an escape from her life.

AH: I think it's nice to have escape in life, don't you think?

AKT: Yes.

AH: Some people just take escape to commit suicide. I don't want that to be the ultimate choice, you know? I think we always have to find escape in life, where you feel okay to be whatever. Take off your masks.

AKT: You are playing with the escapes from the beginning. There's the suicide escape and then this and that other escape proposal. It also feels at times like a condemnation of everything around Setsuko.

AH: Can you elaborate?

AKT: It's almost impossible for her to live her life.

AH: Ah, I see. This is a spoiler - for me, because she lost everything, now she has the potential to be whatever she wants to be. No one has anything on you. You are who you are. You make your own life. You may have lost everything, the title that you're clinging onto as an office lady for, I don't know, 40 years.

Shinobu Terajima as Lucy: "She is very big in Japan. We had a really interesting experience on set."
Shinobu Terajima as Lucy: "She is very big in Japan. We had a really interesting experience on set."

AKT: That's the other one, who retires [Yoshiko played by Miyoko Yamaguchi].

AH: For Setsuko it hasn't been 40. She is 43 so she probably started around 18. 25 years, or something.

AKT: I liked very much the choices of visuals for Lucy - that particular wig. There's a fragility and at the same time I was thinking of Harpo Marx.

AH: It also gives some kind of power in Japanese society to have a blond wig. At one point there was a very popular phase where in a lot of sports, like soccer players started bleaching their hair blond. Because they feel more powerful, I guess, competing with - they call them foreigners, big Spaniards or Italians. They didn't say that but that's how I see it that somehow bleaching hair blond gives you some kind of empowerment.

AKT: The film was first a short.

AH: The short was basically the first 20 minutes. It ends where she says goodbye after the blowout to the office lady, to the co-worker.

AKT: So no travel?

John with Setsuko's sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) and Setsuko
John with Setsuko's sister Ayako (Kaho Minami) and Setsuko

AH: No travel but it's a different ending a little bit.

AKT: We learn a lot about John [Josh Hartnett], who also wears a disguise when we first meet him giving his unorthodox lessons. He looks like Ryan O'Neal in Paper Moon. I liked what you did with the costumes throughout. I saw your costume designer [Masae Miyamoto] also worked on Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone In Love.

AH: Oh, yes, yes. She is very famous in Japan. She does all the big movies and I was so lucky to be able to work with her.

AKT: How did you discuss with her the change from Setsuko to Lucy and the trip to America? Her outfits change drastically.

AH: We were discussing how going to America, she's trying to look American. Trying her best to wear a plaid shirt, jeans that you'd never wear. So she probably went shopping but she doesn't have a lot of money, so she probably went to Uniqlo. We discussed all that stuff.

AKT: Obstacles show up on the road. There's a nice David Lynch moment with the deer. Later a patient interrupts another drive. You like symbolic obstacles or are they more of the real kind?

Josh Hartnett as John: "He gave more layers to the character from the man's perspective. Very nice guy and daring."
Josh Hartnett as John: "He gave more layers to the character from the man's perspective. Very nice guy and daring."

AH: I got hit by a deer once. In the middle of nowhere in LA. Actually, I was in Pasadena or something. Deers are everywhere in Los Angeles. That's why I used a deer.

AKT: I know. It's terrifying. Driving on certain roads you just hope and pray that you don't encounter a deer crossing.

AH: Right. I think things happen for reasons. And you are bringing all those coincidences into your life. Because you open yourself up to something. I believe in that. And it happens to me often.

When I see someone in my dreams - weird, but that person calls me or I bump into them. I don't get surprised anymore because it happens to me all the time. It doesn't happen to you?

AKT: Not like that. Not that I dream of someone and they appear, no. But that I can conjure something up and then it does happen - that I know of.

AH: I call it energy tapping. You tap on someone by thinking or something. Your thought has energy, I feel.

Ayako (Kaho Minami) in the back seat while John (Josh Hartnett) fills the tank
Ayako (Kaho Minami) in the back seat while John (Josh Hartnett) fills the tank

AKT: I liked very much how you handle quotidian encounters in your film. For example the scene in the diner with the two sisters [Setsuko and Ayako played by Kaho Minami] in California where John scolds the waiter. "You really don't understand if she says salad or french fries?"

AH: That really happened in my life. Except that people are mean. It's obvious that he's saying "muffin" or something like that when you're waiting at the Starbucks. But then somebody has a bad day and gives someone, a foreigner, a hard time. And they go "What?" Maybe they couldn't understand it. Some people don't have very good hearing, I don't know.

AKT: Some moments it's done on purpose. In that scene he [the waiter] should be called out.

AH: It's funny because the sister is using that against her.

AKT: The scene between Setsuko and Mika by the ocean is remarkable. It made me think of the Jean Renoir quote from The Rules Of The Game: The problem is that everybody has their reasons.

AH: Yeah, because of the problem. I think because of the problem you have that you want to ignore, that you're not dealing with - that is bringing you more problems in your life. This time, I think Setsuko took up the challenge to look inside of her problems.

Oh Lucy! has been held over at Village East City Cinemas in New York
Oh Lucy! has been held over at Village East City Cinemas in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: What does the tattoo say?

AH: It says Love. It's very cheesy. It's a very cheesy thing to do that, by the way.

AKT: That's obvious.

AH: Only people in love do that and then regret it the next day.

AKT: Is he driving away with Mika's car in the end?

AH: Yeah. Did you notice?

AKT: Yes.

AH: It's his car but she helped him buy it.

AKT: There are no saints in your movie. I love the quote "For American English you have to be lazy and relaxed."

AH: That's what I learned. "Your mouth has to be lazy!" Japanese are very tight. We don't even open our mouth when we speak. No big vowel sounds.

Oh Lucy! on the Village East City Cinemas marquee
Oh Lucy! on the Village East City Cinemas marquee Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You didn't use an orange ping-pong ball to practice, though?

AH: That was my artistic choice, because it's bright and visual. But it was a wine cork they made me put in my mouth vertically and they made me cite sonnets, like Shakespeare.

AKT: Absurdity does come to mind but when I saw your film described as a comedy … I don't know …

AH: I don't know. Right, it has a comedic touch but it's drama. I don't know how to put it, dramedy?

AKT: It's very serious and talks about life choices and dead ends. I never felt that this was just about Lucy. She is not alone in her dilemma.

AH: I am at a film festival and sometimes I feel sorry for these people who came in for a ride. I could tell they're coming to watch Adam [McKay] and Will Ferrell's movie. Expecting to like laugh through it with a big popcorn. I was like, oh my god, I think I should tell them this is actually not that film. I started warning people. Because I don't want them to feel betrayed.

AKT: Setsuko is going on big journeys, inwards and outwards and is making big life decisions.

Oh Lucy! US poster at the office of Film Movement
Oh Lucy! US poster at the office of Film Movement Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AH: I think because she's been containing herself for so long. Once you let that loose? Almost like a kite you wanted to fly out but you cut the thread. And then suddenly you can go anywhere - that's what she's doing.

Suddenly being free, part of it is being courageous in a way and pushing her limits. It's also an act of suicide is similar. You are letting yourself jump off the cliff or platform. It's similar to me.

AKT: Cutting loose from your life?

AH: Yeah, when people are contained and then suddenly, like popcorn, it pops harder if the pressure is so condensed. She's popping.

AKT: With the pressure that had been building up for a very long time.

AH: And partially it's the magic that is America. The power, the spell what America stands for - that freedom. I've seen so many Japanese exchange students after a few months staying in America, suddenly they change, start having tattoos.

AKT: The sister comes along as contrast?

AH: She's the control freak in a way. That also makes Setsuko want to do more of the opposite, right? She's [Ayako] what society represents. To care about what people think, "You are still single." All these judgements.

AKT: What's coming up for you?

AH: I'm working on this original story about my experience as an exchange student in the States. I think it's going to be a dark comedy. I'm also seeing other projects as well.

AKT: Did you get tattoos, as you mentioned?

AH: I have nothing! I did have a piercing [she points to her earlobes] but I don't wear anymore.

AKT: I understand. Same here!

Oh Lucy! is in cinemas in the US and has been held over at the Village East City Cinemas in New York.

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