It’s not that filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi didn’t like Japan. When growing up, she was even okay with school. But from her early teens, she had an urge to leave.
“I think I have some kind of nomadic DNA,” laughs Hirayanagi during an interview on a recent visit to Tokyo. “I sent off my saliva sample to a company that analyzes your DNA and I was told that my pattern was a very common one in Chile. Maybe I have some kind of native South American blood. Maybe I’ve always had a hankering to go back to my roots. Either way, I left Japan when I was 17 to stay with a Japanese host family in LA.”
That was in August 1992, and Los Angeles was still reeling from the Rodney King incident, race riots and lootings. Worried for the safety of his daughter, Hirayanagi’s father was strongly opposed to the plan. “My mother persuaded him to let me go,” she says. “I think she knew that if I was stopped, I would find some other way to go on my own. And my father saw that she was right. I’m really grateful to my parents for letting me leave.”
Three months later, Hirayanagi returned to Japan renew her U.S. visa. Her English wasn’t particularly good at the time, and LA was still experiencing intense racial struggles, but she had already decided she wouldn’t go back to finish high school at home in Chiba Prefecture. So she took a leave of absence, applied to a high school in LA and made plans to graduate in the United States.
“I had seen the underbelly of American society, so I wasn’t exactly having the time of my life,” she says. “But I didn’t want to leave either. I knew if I went back to Chiba, I would be comfortable and protected … but that didn’t appeal to me.”
What did appeal was a career in acting. “I was always enamored by Jackie Chan,” she says, and so after school, she enrolled in San Francisco State University where, in the 1990s, she says it was still possible to live cheaply in the Bay Area.
“It wasn’t easy,” she remembers. “It’s one thing to be able to speak in English, but another to be a good enough to get acting jobs.”
But she continued to study and learn English and, after graduating, from San Francisco State, she moved back to LA to pursue her Hollywood dream.
“By then, I could speak well enough to go to auditions and that’s when I found out the hard way that directors were just not interested in Asian actresses, let alone specifically Japanese ones. Very few movies required those roles,” she says. Like many aspiring LA actors, Hirayanagi had to support herself by waitressing (at Nobu in Malibu), in between going to auditions.
“I landed a few roles, like in a Pepsi commercial or a T-Mobile print ad … I took anything that would help me build a portfolio,” she says. “I also auditioned for ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’ but the main takeaway from that experience was I got to meet Clint Eastwood.”
Roles for Asian women in the U.S. were limited to, she explains, “hookers and dragon ladies. It was a rite of passage for Asian actresses to play hooker No. 1. But I couldn’t even get that.”
Despite the pitfalls, Hirayanagi says that living and working in diverse U.S. cities for so long had left her unenamored by the uniform logic of Japanese society, where things “should be a certain way.”
She didn’t want to go back to Japan, and had begun to realize that maybe she would prefer being behind the camera. “I’m not an actress by nature, I’m shy and don’t like to be looked at,” she explains. “But I needed to show my parents that I was on the path to success, so I kept plugging away.”
It was an audition that she attended just five days after she had given birth that became a turning point.
“I rolled a sash around my protruding belly and went to an MTV audition,” she remembers. “Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.”
But it forced her to rethink and be honest about what she really wanted to do, which led to her enrolling at Tisch Asia, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. It was during her time in Singapore that she wrote the screenplay for “Oh Lucy!” — a graduation project that became her breakthrough work.
Released as a short in 2014, “Oh Lucy!,” which was also directed by Hirayanagi, ran at 21 minutes and looked back at Japan and some of the conformities of living and working in Tokyo. It starred Kaori Momoi, in the lead role of Setsuko, who had consented to work with Hirayanagi pro bono. Since then, “Oh Lucy!” has been developed into a feature film starring some of the biggest names in the business on both sides of the Pacific: Shinobu Terajima, Shiori Kutsuna, Kaho Minami and Josh Hartnett.
“I didn’t think it would be possible to get an actor like Josh Hartnett onto my set,” says Hirayanagi. “But I spoke to him on the phone, and he told me he that he loved the story. It was just an amazing conversation.”
“Oh Lucy!” follows the life of Setsuko (now played by Terajima), a 40-ish Tokyo “office lady,” working in Tokyo. Unmarried, she finds life is going nowhere, until her young niece (Kutsuna) pressures her into attending English conversation classes. Setsuko’s drab life suddenly takes on color. She meets the tall, handsome teacher John (Hartnett), who persuades her to wear a blonde wig and assume the identity of “Lucy,” a woman game for anything. Just when she thinks she has found real happiness, albeit in a tiny classroom, John suddenly disappears. From here, the movie takes the viewer to the U.S. as Setsuko searches for John, convinced that she loves him and that they’re destined to be together.
“I guess I wanted to see a woman you don’t usually see in the movies,” says Hirayanagi of Setsuko, an unusual role for a Japanese woman. “She isn’t young or beautiful, nice or heroic. I wanted to see a woman who wasn’t Wonder Woman and discover what she would do to change herself.”
Setsuko breaks out of her cocoon, and finds freedom in the cultural differences, whether genuine or not, in her English class, and then later in America.
Her desire for that freedom is just as strong and drives her need to be with John, even when she discovers that he seems to have lost a lot of his sheen since he left Tokyo.
“Some people have pointed out that the ending isn’t very happy, but I see it as a hopeful conclusion,” Hirayanagi says. “Setsuko takes a huge risk, for the first time in her life. She finds strength in being honest with herself, and admitting what she wants out of life. I think for many people in Japan, that’s really rare. They hide their true selves behind a mask. But if they find a way to take it off, even for a moment, it’s a game changer.”
On reflection of her move to San Francisco, where she is now once again based, Hirayanagi says:
“I can’t stand being in a place where you find just one type of people. I prefer a place where everyone makes their own rules and they do what they have to do to survive. That’s one of the revelations that changes Setsuko, and the first thing I learned when I first arrived in the U.S.”
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/
Name: Atsuko Hirayanagi
Hometown: Born in Nagano, grew up in Chiba
Key moments in career:
2014 — Graduates New York University Tisch School of the Arts, Asia. Her short “Oh Lucy” wins second place in the Cinefondation at Cannes Film Festival.
2015 — “Oh Lucy” wins Short Film Jury Award: International Fiction at Sundance.
2017 — “Oh Lucy!” is expanded into a feature-length movie starring Shinobu Terajima and Josh Hartnett, wins the NHK Award at Sundance and is nominated for two awards at the Cannes Film Festival.
Words to Live By: “Quit worrying and just do it.”
What I miss about Japan: “The food, the politeness and dexterity of the Japanese. And the onsen (spas).”
What I love about the U.S. : “The diversity and the ‘anything goes’ mind-set. People can be callous, but they can also be really kind.”