Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!, Atsuko Hirayanagi, 2017)

Oh Lucy! posterDespite its rich dramatic seam, the fate of the lonely, long serving Japanese office lady approaching the end of the career she either sacrificed everything for or ended up with by default has mostly been relegated to a melancholy subplot – usually placing her as the unrequited love interest of her oblivious soon to be retiring bachelor/widower boss. Daihachi Yoshida’s Pale Moon was perhaps the best recent attempt to bring this story centre stage in its neat contrasting of the loyal employee about to be forcibly retired by her unforgiving bosses and the slightly younger woman who decides she’ll have her freedom even if she has to do something crazy to get it, but Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh Lucy! (オー・ルーシー!) is a more straightforward tale of living with disappointment and temporarily deluding oneself into thinking there might be an easier way out than simply facing yourself head on.

Middle-aged office lady Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is the office old bag. Unpopular, she keeps herself aloof from her colleagues, refusing the sweets a lovely older lady (herself somewhat unpopular but for the opposite reasons) regularly brings into the office, and bailing on after hours get togethers. Her life changes one day when the man behind her on a crowded station platform grabs Setsuko’s chest and says goodbye before hurling himself in front of the train. Such is life.

Taking some time off work she gets a call from her niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) to meet her in the dodgy maid cafe in which she has been working. Mika has a proposition for her – having recently signed up for a year’s worth of non-refundable English classes, Mika would rather do something else with the money and wonders if she could “transfer” the remainder onto Setsuko. Despite her tough exterior Setsuko is something of a soft touch and agrees but is surprised to find the “English School” seems to be located in room 301 of a very specific brothel. John (Josh Hartnett), her new teacher, who has a strict English only policy, begins by giving Setsuko a large hug before issuing her a blonde wig and rechristening her “Lucy”. Through her English lesson, “Lucy” also meets another man in the same position “Tom” (Koji Yakusho) – a recently widowed, retired detective now working as a security consultant. Setsuko is quite taken with her strange new hobby, and is heartbroken to realise Mika and John are an item and they’ve both run off to America.

Setsuko’s journey takes her all the way to LA with her sister, Ayako (Kaho Minami), desperate to sort her wayward daughter out once and for all. As different as they are, Ayako and Setsuko share something of the same spikiness though Setsuko’s cruel streak is one she deeply regrets and only allows out in moments of extreme desperation whereas a prim sort of bossiness appears to be Ayako’s default. Setsuko’s Tokyo life is one of embittered repression, having been disappointed in love she keeps herself isolated, afraid of new connections and contemptuous of her colleagues with their superficial attitudes and insincere commitment to interoffice politeness. Suicide haunts her from that first train station shocker to the all too common “delays caused by an incident on the line” and the sudden impulsive decision caused by unkind words offered at the wrong moment.

“Lucy” the “relaxed” American blonde releases Setsuko’s better nature which had been only glimpsed in her softhearted agreeing to Mika’s proposal and decision to allow Ayako to share her foreign adventure. John’s hug kickstarted something of an addiction, a yearning for connection seemingly severed in Setsuko’s formative years but if “Lucy” sees John as a symbol of American freedoms – big, open, filled with possibilities, his homeland persona turns out to be a disappointment. Just like the maid’s outfit Setsuko finds in John’s wardrobe, John’s smartly bespectacled English teacher is just a persona adopted in a foreign land designed to part fools from their money. Still, Setsuko cannot let her delusion die and continues to see him as something of a saviour, enjoying her American adventure with girlish glee until it all gets a bit a nasty, desperate, and ultimately humiliating.

Having believed herself to have only two paths to the future – being “retired” like the office grandma, pitied by the younger women who swear they’ll never end up like her (much as Setsuko might have herself), or making a swift exit from a world which has no place for older single women, Setsuko thought she’d found a way out only to have all of her illusions shattered all at once. “Lucy” showed her who she really was, and it wasn’t very pretty. Still, even at this late stage Setsuko can appreciate the irony of her situation. That first hug that seemed so forced and awkward, an insincere barrier to true connection, suddenly finds its rightful destination and it looks like Setsuko’s train may finally have come in.


Screened at Raindance 2017

Expanded from Atsuko Hirayanagi’s 2014 short which starred Kaori Momoi.

Clip (English subtitles)

Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空, Masaki Hamamoto, 2007)

Akanezora - Beyond the Crimson Sky poster“It’s not all about tofu!” screams the heroine of Akanezora: Beyond the Crimson Sky (あかね空), a film which is all about tofu. Like tofu though, it has its own subtle flavour, gradually becoming richer by absorbing the spice of life. Based on a novel by Ichiriki Yamamoto, Akanezora is co-scripted by veteran of the Japanese New Wave, Masahiro Shinoda and directed by Masaki Hamamoto who had worked with Shinoda on Owl’s Castle and Spy Sorge prior to the director’s retirement in 2003. Like the majority of Shinoda’s work, Akanezora takes place in the past but echoes the future as it takes a sideways look at the nation’s most representative genre – the family drama. Fathers, sons, legacy and innovation come together in the story of a young man travelling from an old capital to a new one with a traditional craft he will have to make his own in order to succeed.

The story opens in the early 18th century when a couple stop to chat to a friend and, while they aren’t paying attention, their small son Shokichi wanders off after a doll show. Fastforward a decade or so and a young man, Eikichi (Masaaki Uchino), arrives from Kyoto intent on opening up a tofu shop in the capital. Enjoying the delicious local water, he runs into cheerful local girl, Ofumi (Miki Nakatani), who insists on helping him find his way around an unfamiliar city.

Ofumi proves invaluable in helping him set up his small neighbourhood store, but as skilled as Eikichi is, Kyoto tofu and Edo tofu are much more different than one might think. Eikichi’s tofu is smaller in size and fluffy where Edo tofu is larger yet solid, and though its flavour is superior, it does not suit the local taste or cuisine. Ofumi helps him out again, and once the shop is doing better the two marry. Flashforward another 18 years and the couple have three children, two sons and a daughter, but as successful as they are, they are no longer free of familial disharmony.

Strange coincidences are in play, such as Eikichi’s tofu making heritage lining up perfectly with that of a lonely couple, Oshino (Shima Iwashita) and Seibe (Renji Ishibashi), still grieving the loss of their little boy whose fate remains an open mystery. Though their son remains lost to them, Oshino and Seibe see something of the man he might have been in Eikichi who is also a practitioner of the trade they intended to pass on to him. Eikichi is a down to Earth southerner – naive, in one sense, yet honest, straighforward, kind and courteous. Though all agree his craftsmanship is first rate and his tofu excellently made, they privately advise he consider firming it up in keeping with local tastes. Eikichi is as stubborn as he is genial – he will not betray the “tradition” which has been passed down to him from his master and which he fully intends to hand down to his sons, purveyors of refined Kyoto tofu in fashionable Edo.

Thanks to Seibe’s generous patronage and Ofumi’s perseverance, Eikichi is a success but clashes with his eldest son and presumptive heir, Eitaro (Kohei Takeda), who resents his role as a kind of sales rep for his dad’s company. Following a volcanic eruption and subsequent poor harvest, grain prices are at a premium yet Eikichi, following the “Kyoto way”, refuses to raise prices, much to the consternation of fellow merchants who take out their displeasure on the young and impressionable Eitaro. One in particular launches a plan to ruin Eikichi’s tofu shop and gain access to the best of the city’s wells by befriending the lonely young son, getting him hooked on gambling and then bankrupting him with the help of local gangster boss Denzo (Masaaki Uchino).

Eikichi’s tofu, as someone later puts it, prospered not only because of his hard work and dedication, but because it was made with the heart. His overwhelming dedication to his craft might seem to blunt his dedication to those he loves but he cares deeply about his wife and children even if his “straightforward” character means he has a funny way of showing it. A running joke circles around Eikichi’s country bumpkin Kyoto accent and though the culture clash goes further than debating the proper texture of tofu, he finds himself a home thanks to the kindness of strangers. Akanezora, like Eikichi’s tofu, proves a little too spongy, its narrative connections too subtle in flavour to make much of an impact when fed only with Hamamoto’s serviceable if plain visuals, the unexpectedly chirpy performance of Miki Nakatani as the energetic Ofumi, and Masaaki Uchino’s impressive double duty as the earnest Eikichi and omnipotent Denzo. Tragedy breaks one family only to bring another back together, somehow restoring a once broken cycle yet even if Akanezora’s rosy skies suggest a resurgent warmth, it isn’t quite enough to solidify its otherwise watery brew.


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Summer Explorers 3 season dedicated to films about food.