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‘Oh Lucy!’: A made-in-Japan take on the American road trip movie

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

I’ve seen my share of Japanese movies set partly or wholly in the United States. With a few exceptions, the filmmakers only skim the exotic surface, while the Japanese characters never become more than fish out of water gasping for a breath of the familiar, be it instant noodles or spoken Japanese.

Based on her prize-winning MFA thesis short, Atsuko Hirayanagi’s “Oh Lucy!” premiered in the 2017 Cannes Critics’ Week section and screened at many other overseas festivals before finally arriving on screens here.

This international attention is deserved: “Oh Lucy!” sure-footedly crosses the U.S.-Japan divide. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect: The gags often play on stereotypes, while the drama sometimes verges on the overwrought. Yet on the whole the film is meticulously crafted; fine detailing is often absent in the usual Japanese “international” movie, whose brush of choice is broad.

Much of this is due to spot-on casting: For her first feature, Hirayanagi snagged some of the best Japanese actors currently working, starting with Shinobu Terajima in the title role. Also, instead of the amateur actors that fill the non-Japanese roles in so many local films, Josh Hartnett plays the love interest. No longer the box-office force that starred in such hits as “Pearl Harbor” and “Black Hawk Down,” he is still a recognizable name.

Oh Lucy!
Rating
Run Time 95 mins.
Language JAPANESE, ENGLISH

That said, Hirayanagi and Boris Frumin’s script doesn’t always give him and the others a lot to work with. The English dialogue is trimmed to the bone, though it is punchy and pointed enough to get laughs and reveal character.

Our heroine is Setsuko, a 43-year-old OL (“office lady” or female company employee) who hates her dull job and lonely life. So, when her feckless niece Mika (Shioli Kutsuna), a maid at a Tokyo maid cafe, asks her aunt to take over her prepaid English conversation lessons — she signed up for a year’s worth — Setsuko agrees to give eikaiwa (English conversation) a try as a break from her stultifying routine.

The teacher for her trial lesson, John (Hartnett), dubs her “Lucy,” makes her don a blonde wig and stuffs a ping-pong ball into her mouth, but he’s tall, handsome and gives out hugs as part of his lesson plan. Setsuko is sold. She also makes the acquaintance of another new student, the awkward but enthusiastic “Tom”(Koji Yakusho).

Then John suddenly quits the school and Setsuko learns that Mika has run off with him to California. After drunkenly venting at a company farewell party for a despised colleague, Setsuko decides to fly to Los Angeles together with Ayako (Kaho Minami), her estranged older sister and Mika’s worried mom.

This section is mostly East-meets-West comedy, as the sisters, their minimal English notwithstanding, track down a now broke and girlfriend-less John and, with him as a reluctant driver, go in search of Mika in San Diego, trading barbs all the way — some funny, some wounding.

The film’s serious undercurrent surfaces as Setsuko’s infatuation with John becomes more than a joke. She is, we see, not only a comically desperate 40-something woman, but also a little bad and a little mad. Terajima keeps all these elements under pitch-perfect control, even when the film plunges over the cliff (once literally) into histrionics.

She also keeps the audience on the contrary heroine’s side. Flaws and all, you’ll love “Lucy.”

An English subtitled screening of “Oh Lucy!” will take place at 6:50 p.m. on May 17 at Eurospace in Shibuya, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.eurospace.co.jp/works/detail.php?w_id=000252