I sat down with director Atsuko Hirayanagi on a rainy March day to talk about her film Oh Lucy!, now in limited release in the Bay Area and around the country. The film follows Setsuko, a single, depressed and “unfulfilled office-lady” in Tokyo as she has an awakening of individuality and desires causing her to fall for her English language instructor whose departure motivates her to chase him to Southern California. It reminded me of Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, based on a true story about a lonely woman’s quest for buried treasure in Fargo, N.D. The interview has been edited for length and clarity (the full interview is available on the Pacific Heart podcast on Soundcloud, iTunes and Stitcher).
Where did the idea come from and where did you take it from there?
In a writing class in grad school…the assignment was to write about five people you know. A year later, I went back to those ideas, and this character spoke to me.
I love the genesis of this film, in understanding another person, and empathy.
[Empathy] resonated with me throughout school….[another assignment was] to write about someone you don’t like in your life…can you make them the protagonist of your story? Something made me realize…Anyone can be the protagonist, anyone can have importance…It’s important to see someone you might not relate to, and at least try to understand them.
Your press packet describes Setsuko as an “unfulfilled woman”…. Could you talk about her mental health? I think this may be of interest to Asian American women, who suffer high rates of depression.
This particular person doesn’t tell her real feelings. She’s depressed but never shows that…She’s an unhappy person, on an antidepressant. I want to show how she lived and how she had to hide when she goes to work.
There’s depression, hoarding – and we can see how that’s related to her relationships. Japan is often stereotyped as a “nice, friendly, hospitality culture.” When I said the people in Japan were nice to my friend’s Japanese father, he said “maybe they are nice to foreigners, but not to each other.” Could you say more about this, and why you chose to portray this side of Japanese society?
Even two family members can be extremely cruel to each other but then you have to have some façade to the exterior world. What you do inside your house and what you show outside. Culturally we have two words, honne and tatamae (note: the former representing one’s true feelings and the latter the face one shows to the world). Tatamae could be a lie [that you present to the world]. We appreciate silence and [nonverbal signals]. Like haiku, where you describe in a few words something very big and sublime. If you can’t get those social cues, some people are labeled clueless or become outcasts. But in this modern life, it’s hard to express all this information in the air. Whereas American culture is all about expressing yourself…and it’s ok to have opinions. “Tell us where you’re coming from.” Your identity.
We have a word for tatamae as well – it’s called Facebook!
(laughs) Exactly. In this modern life, we’ve lost the sense of community, the sense of trying to understand each other. We are strangers living in a modern metropolis, and we are afraid of each other.
It’s frightening to stick out. There’s a woman in your film who is mocked for being tender and sweet.
The office-lady…(a category in Japan)…is a wallflower in the workforce, just serving men.
You really show a woman’s story here, a woman trying to express her individuality and power. There are symbols of trying to stand out…the wig, driving a car, and the tattoo –
Or making trouble. The tattoo is something I noticed – I met a woman from Japan, very quiet and demure. Three years later when she went back to Japan, she had tattoos all over her body… There’s something about America that has that magic spell, especially for those who are suppressed or constrained in society.
In the press packet you said “I believe that the more quiet and obscure a person is, the more things that person has to say.” At the Q & A, you related your experience of coming to the U.S.
When I was 17, I came to the United States as an exchange student. I couldn’t really speak English… I wasn’t able to express myself. I was so afraid to speak out. I didn’t want to stand out as someone who was incapable. I shut down and acted like this quiet Asian girl. But obviously I had things I wanted to say, my own opinions. I remembered this girl that I met when I was 6 years old. She was quiet at school but really wild at home. I realized I became like her. [There’s] this duality of human nature. People have their expectations of you versus who you really are. This comes into conflict…
Setsuko is struggling to express herself, find herself, and gets caught up in an obsession with John. But you didn’t idealize white or Japanese people, there were different kinds of each. What did you want to say interculturally? You straddle two cultures as well.
At the end of the day, we are all the same… despite all the masks we wear and the cultural norms we have to follow. At the end of the day, we are all afraid, we all want to be loved, we all want to find companionship. What we project to the world is not the same as what you are.
That makes your story a universal story about love, belonging and acceptance, heart-rendingly portrayed. Some people were really affected. I really had to sit with it.
I assume as a doctor, you have your own masks you have to wear to look capable and all that stuff…you can’t break down in front of your patients…you must have a lot of stuff you have to hold onto. You must need your own therapist –
Oh yes, there’s a whole pyramid scheme!
(Laughs) We are all the same. [We have to watch out for] those we want to put on a pedestal. They are the ones with really dark secrets!
In my book Facebuddha I talk about the rejection complex. The opposite of suffering is belonging – and there are so many ways we fall short of belonging and love, which is a synonym of belonging. Your movie actually took me to a kind of sunken place as I empathized with Setsuko and the other characters in their quests for love and belonging – I think this is a universal human quest. What message or experience do you hope your viewers come away with?
Some of the audience found it not hopeful in the end… I found it hopeful. To be confused in life, and not knowing everything is a great thing…Sometimes new things can lead to something different. Suddenly you find companionship or a community where you didn’t think you would belong. All that is hopeful. Sometimes you have to break your identity to find something new.
That’s what happens to Setsuko.
The person I know probably wouldn’t take the English lesson…But once you open that door, you start attracting some people you were supposed to meet, and your life can turn. To find happiness, you have to live honestly. Honesty is a shortcut to happiness.
And relating honestly. When you’re stuck inside yourself, all the dark thoughts come in. You deal with darkness – suicidality and depression – but Setsuko finds caring and connection.
True connection can only happen when you take everything down. People can empathize and really understand each other.
You are not really on social media – tell me about that!
I don’t like it…it also terrifies me. My kids aren’t going to get iPhones until they’re 18. You know that saying “if a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” To me, it makes a sound. Something you can’t see or hear can make a difference. The real experience, real relationship, is more important than what you see on the computer.
We are on the same page! No wonder I loved your movie, which portrayed the power and importance of real relationship, whose absence causes human beings so much suffering. We are human relatings, not just human beings. I urge everyone to go out and see your movie. Thank you!
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and author in San Francisco. His books Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks and Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! are available at all major online retailers. Tamlyn Tomita calls Facebuddha “a very personal, often funny, warmly intelligent, thoughtful and heartfelt journey to transcendence!” Sign up for a newsletter at www.RaviChandraMD.com to hear about his writing and events, such as a self-compassion workshop on April 21, 2018. Read more MOSF posts here and here.