The wistful longing of discontented Japanese salarymen in films like Shall We Dance? is absent from the bracingly funny Oh Lucy! Setsuko Kawashima (Shinobu Terajima), an office lady tugging at her restrictive white collar, bubbles with anger and resentment. She barely masks contempt for a retiring coworker who fawns over their male boss, stuffing the sweets she's proffered into a desk drawer already overflowing with them. Younger women greet the supervisor's paternalistic pronouncements with graceful nods and demure smiles, but Setsuko's head jerk and pained rictus express a bilious disdain.
She hesitantly joins an English immersion class taught by the effusive John (Josh Hartnett), who gives students garish wigs and American names. When Setsuko becomes the platinum blonde Lucy, layers of conformity peel away to reveal stifled needs strong enough to prompt her to follow John after he leaves Tokyo for Los Angeles. Director Atsuko Hirayanagi introduced a more broadly comic Setsuko in her 2014 short of the same title, and her feature screenplay (written with Boris Frumin) still finds humor in the character's flailing attempts to break free from habitual loneliness and obedience.
Terajima's performance, nominated for an Independent Spirit Award (as is Oh Lucy! for Best First Feature), adroitly balances Setsuko's contradictions. She's a restive spirit cowered by her poisonous sister, and a drab spinster envious and derisive of a spoiled, coquettish niece who's equal parts sex kitten and Hello Kitty. Hirayanagi acknowledges that reinvention isn't as simple as trading Setsuko's messy stagnation for Lucy's zany possibility. What Setsuko fears most is losing everything, but that may be her best option.