Atsuko Hirayanagi discusses her debut feature Oh Lucy!, a rare film that centres a complex middle-aged woman as the lead.
A film starring Josh Hartnett presented in Critics’ Week was always going to attract our attention. Oh Lucy!, directed by first-time filmmaker Atsuko Hirayanagi, went far beyond my expectations. The film follows Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a middle-aged Japanese woman working a boring office job, as the sudden departure of her dashing American English teacher John (Hartnett) sends her into a profound existential crisis.
Like many people learning a language, Setsuko is given a new name in English class, Lucy. Along with the bright blonde wig that John gives her, this name allows Setsuko to adopt a new persona both in and out of the classroom — one that is completely different from her usually quiet, reserved self. A screwball comedy of desperation and displacement, Oh Lucy! offers a refreshing, honest, and always entertaining perspective on characters who are very rarely put in the spotlight.
Back in Cannes, Hirayanagi and I talked about social masks, dark comedy, making films about the underrepresented, and the differences between the Japanese and American film industries.
Seventh Row (7R): The lead character of your film is a middle-aged woman, which is rather rare in cinema. Why did you make this choice?
Atsuko Hirayanagi: Precisely because it is so rare. For a class assignment [at film school], we had to write about someone we knew. I picked this woman because I’d never seen anyone like that in a film before. She’s the kind of person who’s never the main character — neither in film nor in life. She’s on the side, and you don’t usually talk about her.She’s the kind of person who’s never the main character — neither in film nor in life.Click To Tweet
I’m very curious about people who are quiet, because they usually have more to say than those who are loud. In the film, Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) hides her true feelings. She doesn’t say what she really feels. I was wondering: “How can I make her say what she means and how she feels?” That’s when I thought of giving her a voice through an alter-ego, Lucy.
The idea was also based on my experience as an exchange student in the United States. I was 17 years old, learning English, but unable to speak it that well. It was very frustrating. You try, but don’t want to make mistakes either, so you become quiet. People immediately think that’s just who you are, but I wasn’t like that. I was comfortable with speaking in front of people.I’m very curious about people who are quiet. They usually have more to say than those who are loud.Click To Tweet
It’s even worse in the States, because of the cliche about Asian girls being quiet and demure. But people are usually the opposite of what they show. When someone looks put together, inside they’re often a chaos.
7R: Setsuko’s struggle is very much related to love and sex.
Atsuko Hirayanagi: I wanted her to speak out and reveal herself. A good trigger for someone to open up and get out of their shell is a search for love. As a high-school student, I realised that America is all about sex. People in the U.S. are very comfortable showing their skin, whereas in Japan, it’s the opposite. Hugging John and taking all these chances is very unusual for Setsuko. But I think that all these years, she was waiting for this to happen. She was just waiting for someone to give her that opportunity.People are usually the opposite of what they show. Click To Tweet
7R: This idea that she becomes sort of a different person when she learns American English or goes to America — is that something you’ve experienced yourself?
Atsuko Hirayanagi:: I think I’ve remained the same since my earliest memories, when I became “conscious” at three years old. The person inside myself hasn’t changed. What changes are the different kinds of social masks we wear.The person inside me hasn’t changed. What changes are the different kinds of social masks we wear. Click To Tweet
In Japan, the “office-lady” is a mask. If you wear it, you’re not supposed to stand out. You’re just here to work for other people who are the “heroes”, the protagonists in the office. That’s also why I wanted to make an office-lady the protagonist. We’re all the same inside. We may all wear different masks, come from different cultures, speak different languages, but that three-year-old part of me is probably the same as yours. All we really want is the same: to have people we love and who love us.
7R: The humour in Oh Lucy! is all about extremes. It can be extremely bleak, with several people jumping in front of trains, or extremely odd, with the lead’s unpredictable, crazy actions.
Atsuko Hirayanagi: I’m the kind of person who laughs at a funeral. I see funny moments everywhere. I think many things or situations are funny precisely because they’re not supposed to be funny. Those are the times where I try to hold my laughter in. I remember those moments and try to put them in my movie.I’m the kind of person who laughs at a funeral. Click To Tweet
7R: Shinobu Terajima has a very expressive face. We know what her character is thinking until she becomes almost completely unpredictable. How did you direct Terajima?
Atsuko Hirayanagi:: [Japanese film director] Hirokazu Koreeda said that the casting is 80% of directing. I totally agree. Once I cast everyone, I didn’t need to direct much anymore. I only did little adjustments for the blocking or the weather. All the actors played their part so effortlessly. We didn’t rehearse. I just wanted to work with what they brought. It was a collaborative process.
7R: How did you end up casting Josh Hartnett in Oh Lucy!?
Atsuko Hirayanagi: I was introduced to him by my agent, and I asked him to read the script. I didn’t think I would get him. He’s a star! But he really liked it, and he immediately called back. I told him, “How can I make you say yes?” He said, “Oh! I thought I would have to convince you. Of course I want to do this role!” Then, we met, talked about the film, and he knew exactly who his character was.
7R: How was it working with an American actor, as opposed to Japanese actors?
Atusko Hirayanagi: One major difference is that Japanese actors aren’t used to coverage:- shooting the same scene from different angles, several times. This is because they don’t make big budget films in Japan. Japanese films usually shoot one master shot or two angles, and fewer takes. On the plus side, this mean that Japanese actors arrive really well prepared on the set, because they can’t usually afford to make mistakes.
7R: Does your film have a bigger budget than the average Japanese film?
Atsuko Hirayanagi: I think so. Relatively speaking, I got more than a first time filmmaker would get in Japan for an indie. But it wasn’t big budget, I usually shot one or two takes, three at the most. We moved very fast.
7R: Was it hard for you to gather the money necessary to make Oh Lucy!?
Atsuko Hirayanagi: It was, actually, especially in Japan. But I live in the States, and I think that helps. Americans don’t necessarily refuse to work with a first time filmmaker. I’m sure there is some of that in the U.S., but in Japan, it’s a more hierarchical industry. It’s very difficult for someone like me to launch a feature without the support of someone who is already major in the industry.
My short film Oh Lucy! also did very well, which helped getting people to read the script for the feature. That’s how we got to Gloria Sanchez Productions, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell’s production company. In Japan, I don’t think shorts usually lead you to features. It’s a very different system and mindset. I’m also the producer on the film, so I kept pushing for my vision. I had total control.I’m always looking for characters I haven’t seen onscreen before. Theirs are the stories I want to tell.Click To Tweet
7R: Are your future projects also focused on female characters?
Atsuko Hirayanagi:: I’m open! One project I’m thinking of would be inspired by my experience in high school in the U.S, as a 17-year-old exchange student. Another one would be about a Japanese communist man in the Philippines. I’m always looking for characters I haven’t seen onscreen before. Theirs are the stories I want to tell.
This interview was originally published on May 30, 2017.
Films about middle-aged or older women are not very common, but they do exist! Recently, Kathleen Hepburn’s Never Steady, Never Still centred on a woman with Alzheimer’s, in her late forties, struggling with loneliness. Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart follows a woman over the course of several decades, ending when she is in her 60s. On TV, Big Little Lies offered a rare look at women in their 20s, but also in their 50s, existing together in the same space.