A Black Comedy About Stereotypes
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a middle-aged unmarried office worker a Tokyo Office where she is expected to pass the whole of her working life doing the same mundane and monotonous chores every. Her life away from the office is not much better. She lives in a tiny one-room apartment which is packed with the remains of unfinished food and unopened mail.
One day, she gets a phone call from her twenty something-year-old niece, Mika (Shioli Kutsuna) who is desperately broke and wants Setsuko to take over a course of English lessons which she signed up for but can no longer afford, and for which she cannot get her money back. Because she is somewhat sweet on Mika, Setsuko agrees and goes off to the school for a trial lesson.
The ‘school’ is in one of the city’s infamous Love Hotels, and once inside, Setasuko is greeted by John (Josh Harnett), aHH the teacher who insists on being very American and hugging her the moment she walks into the room. His unorthodox methods include the fact that all pupils must take American names (she becomes Lucy) and wear wigs to “acclimatize themselves” away from being their traditional reserved Japanese selves. At first, Lucy is aghast about this but she soon begins to enjoy it (especially John upon whom she develops an instant crush).
Then when she returns for the second lesson, she finds that John has left the school and gone back home to the US. As if that is not enough, she also finds that Mika has also gone with him thanks to the money that Setsuko had paid her to take over the lessons.
A couple of months later when Setsuko/Lucy gets a postcard from Mika that gives her a return address, she decides to go to the United States herself, ostensibly to find Mika but she is really more interested in finding John. Her elder sister Ayako (Kaho Minami), who is also Mika’s mother, insists upon coming along even though there is not much love lost between mother and daughter. There is also an undercurrent of bad feeling between the sisters too that goes back to when Ayako stole Setsuko’s only boyfriend and married him.
When they arrive at the apartment where John is living alone and broke, they learn that Mika left. John also does not seem to be as handsome as he was in Japan. Of course, that does not stop the sisters talking him into joining them chasing after Mika, and along the way, the rather desperate Lucy keeps making bad errors of judgments.
A great deal of the humor is, at first, directed at the sensibility of the reserved Japanese middle classes but it then changes and takes aim at the recklessness of surfer types dudes and blue-collar Californians. This becomes a story about culture clash.
The film was inspired by the writer/director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s own experiences when she first came to study in the US as a student. Shinobu Terajima is wonderful as the reckless Japanese spinster who loses her inhibitions when her buttons are pressed. Her performance is perfection. The film is really about the tricky art of communication. The film does not depend on Setsuko and company’s newness to America and limited English to deliver easy laughs. Rather its aims are more ambitious and center on emphasizing what can be expressed through difficulties in communication.
The film ends on a bittersweet note as Setsuko finds herself alone and isolated with her future up in the air. She returned home to things worse than when she left and she’ll have to figure out how to live a different life. But of course, that’s nothing she hasn’t done before.