Berlin Hidden Gem: '37 Seconds' Takes an Honest Look at Disability

Courtesy of Berlinale
First-time actress Mei Kayama, who has cerebral palsy, plays aspiring artist Yuma.

Japanese director Hikari's unflinching debut tells the story of a wheelchair-bound woman chasing her creative dreams and experiencing a sexual awakening.

There are certainly less challenging themes to tackle in a debut feature than a frank exploration of the sexual awakening of a woman with cerebral palsy.

But shying away from challenges doesn’t appear to be in the nature of the Japanese director who goes by Hikari. Born Mitsuyo Miyazaki, she now uses this evocative single name, which in Japanese can mean light, radiance, happiness or power.

“If I’m going to spend six months or a year on a film, I need to say something,” Hikari says.

37 Seconds finds a lot to say as it chronicles the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a young woman named Yuma, played by disabled first-time actress Mei Kayama, as she struggles to break free from a smothering mother and a childhood friend turned exploitative internet star in the pursuit of her dream of becoming a manga artist. The title refers to the length of time Yuma was unable to breathe immediately after her birth, leading to her developmental difficulties.

The idea for the film was born out of conversations Hikari had with the head of a Japanese organization for disabled people, which provides a range of services, including sexual assistance, from specialists. From there, she interviewed women with disabilities in the U.S. and Japan. “Some of them were very open about their experiences,” she says. “One woman was completely paralyzed, but was able to orgasm and gave birth to a child.”

Hikari had already written a comedy script about a manga artist who was a virgin and wanted to gain more experience to help her create more realistic stories. “So I sort of combined that with the new ideas I had,” she explains.

Taking part in a Film Independent workshop in Los Angeles, she was mentored by Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. Her script was then selected for the Sundance Institute/NHK Award in 2017, providing support for her to develop the project.

However, her submission faced an unusual initial problem: It was written in the wrong language. Born in Osaka, Hikari wanted to escape Japan and went to high school in the U.S., followed by college in Utah and later USC film school. “I’d written the first script draft in English, so I had about a week to translate it into Japanese, which I did with the help of seven interns,” recalls Hikari.

The film makes for both uncomfortable and uplifting viewing, but never veers into obvious heartstring-tugging territory, nor seeks sympathy for its protagonists. “Disability is still taboo in much of Asia,” Hikari explains. “I wanted to show [that the disabled] can pursue their lives in different ways, the same as all able-bodied people.”

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 8 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.