“Open your mouth a little bit more. Let out more sound.” At her first English lesson, Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) learns from her teacher, John (Josh Hartnett), that to speak “American English,” “You need to be lazy, lazy and relaxed, let it go.” The one-on-one class proceeds: John misspells her name on his whiteboard, then gives her an American name, Lucy, before he advises, “Relax, don’t be nervous. Looks like you need a hug.” During the embrace, Setsuko is visibly uncomfortable, but he takes no notice. “What can I say”? he smiles, “I’m a hugger.” Continue reading…
During this early scene in Atsuko Hirayanagi’s feature debut, Oh Lucy!, you might appreciate both John and Setsuko’s reactions. He seems a clumsy, if not quite ugly, American doing his best to smooth over his ignorance of the world where he’s currently working. At the same time, she’s bored and not a little frustrated with that same world, in Tokyo. An office worker full of resentments against her dull coworkers, her relentless routine of a life, and her disapproving sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), Setsuko has agreed to take this English lesson as a favor to her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna). By the time she learns that Mika’s request isn’t wholly honest, Setsuko’s already peered over the edge of her own life into the odd “American” fantasy that John performs and embodies.
Not a little enthralled, Setsuko embarks on a series of misadventures in the hopes of experiencing at least a bit of this fantasy. Along the way, she meets people she doesn’t imagine she’ll meet, travels to Los Angeles with Ayako, and gets stoned with John. This last is of a piece with the movie’s general (and rather generic) use of America as an idea. Hartnett plays that idea as you might expect, all insensitive charm and recklessness, another iteration of his Trip Fontaine in The Virgin Suicides. To Setsuko, he appears — however briefly – – to be a most beautiful object of desire, or at least an emblem of the possibilities she’s never pursued.
To desire John, or rather, what he represents, Setsuko must overlook all kinds of logic, seeming to become a girl, perhaps the girl she never had a chance to be, now looking worn and bitter as she smokes cigarette after cigarette. In reverting to a vaguely youthful naivete, Setsuko’s like any number of girls in US romantic comedies, awkwardly pursuing conventional goals like boyfriends and vengeance and recognition. That Oh Lucy! embellishes the episodic story of such pursuits with disconcerting threads of self-destructiveness and foolishness helps to complicate Setsuko’s progress. It’s never clear that escaping her repressed past is healthy or positive, or that coming to terms with limits (as most protagonists in romantic comedies must) is a resolution.
In her ambiguity, Setsuko might pose challenges to formulas, of plot and character. But it’s also possible that she reinforces exactly what’s not adventurous about these formulas. The film presents her in any number of confined spaces, framed by doors and windows and mirrors, at her cubicle desk or in her cluttered apartment.
Indeed, her fear and expectation of going nowhere shapes her trajectory. Setsuko is introduced on a subway platform, one of many riders waiting with medical masks on their faces, anonymous and unmoving. When one of the crowd member whispers to her just before he jumps off the platform to his death, it may appear for a moment that she’s singled out, her alarm at what she witnesses a glitch in her daily depression. But that doesn’t quite happen either, as each step she might take out of her lane ends up taking her back inside. Her journey to California provides chances to get a tattoo, drive a car, and eat tacos, all standard plot points in too many movies taking aim at the superficial appeals of America.
As Setsuko’s experience in America becomes rather abjectly episodic, John becomes a cartoon (or Trip Fontaine without “Magic Man”), her sister becomes a one-note foil, and her niece becomes unfathomable. This is too bad, because Mika’s story apart from Setsuko’s — and so, off-screen — sounds interesting, though you only hear it in snatches. She makes some decisions and wonders about them, even tries to engage her auntie in some conversation about what’s at stake in a relationship with John, the American. But Setsuko can’t engage, and as she goes off her own set of rails, the movie more or less follows, careening from event to event without much development of character or metaphor.
Certainly, careening can be a kind of movement, antic and odd, sometimes even original. But here the lurching from moment to moment, from Tokyo to LA to San Diego and back to Tokyo, doesn’t suggest a change or realization. Instead, never gets beyond lurching, easy jabs at America, land of fatuous boys and clueless girls. That’s not to say that Setsuko finds solace in Tokyo, Again and again her derivative worldview — borrowed from popular culture and bounded by a lifetime of not moving — seems confirmed: “All men are the same,” she says at last. It’s not that she would know. It’s that she’s heard it so many times.