'37 Seconds': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
A refreshingly unbiased look at a real heroine.

A spirited young Japanese woman with cerebral palsy breaks free to explore the world’s pains and joys in Hikari’s audience-acclaimed feature debut.

37 Seconds, the feature debut of out-of-the-box short filmmaker Hikari, is not your conventional story about a disabled person facing and overcoming society’s prejudice. The most touching thing about its 23-year-old heroine, sweetly played in a wisp of a voice by newcomer Mei Kayama, is not that she has a disability, but that she is a beautiful soul. The fact that cerebral palsy has put her in a wheelchair is a sad fact of life that she has come to accept. In a moving moment late in the film, she compares her life to that of a normally able girl her age and quietly decides that, if it had to happen to one of them, she’s glad it happened to her.

It took only 37 seconds of not breathing when she was born to change Yuma’s life, robbing her of control over the muscles in her legs and left arm. But that doesn’t stop her from being an imaginative storyteller and a promising manga artist, or from seeking to express her sexuality on her way to adulthood. 37 Seconds won the audience award when it bowed in Berlin’s Panorama, as well as an award from the International Confederation of Art Cinemas. This delightfully uplifting film, sold by Films Boutique and distributed on Netflix, ought to be widely seen.

Japanese society is said to be adverse to talking about people with disabilities, which makes young Yuma’s journey all the more poignant. Yet sentimentality and pathos are banned from Hikari’s screenplay, which surprises with its fresh, often humorous realism. This is one of those films that starts slowly and predictably, but when the turning point comes, it lifts the pic into another dimension.

Early on we see Yuma (who looks more like 13 than 23) taking a bath with her mother, and it is emblematic of how their overly dependent relationship keeps her from growing up. Although we don’t get their true backstory until much later, it seems clear that Mom (Misuzu Kanno) has raised Yuma as a single mother and she vents her love and fears on the girl, who she treats like a child. She especially insists on helping her daughter take off her clothes and bathe, although Yuma yearns to be more independent.

She's able to take the train on her own and spends several days a week at the home of her childhood friend Sayaka (Minori Hagiwara, perfect in plush kitten ears), who has become an insufferable internet influencer with 100,000 followers. Sayaka’s first manga comic is coming out — only it isn’t her work at all, it’s Yuma’s. She’s hurt when Sayaka ignores her at the book signing packed with fans, especially when she realizes her blogging friend is taking all the credit for her creative stories and exceptional drawings. When Yuma approaches an agent with her work, she’s told it’s “too much like Sayaka’s” and decides it’s time to change her style.

At this point, the film takes its giant leap forward. After many rejections over the phone, Yuma gets an appointment with an adult comics editor and wheels herself into a busy office. She has brought some sexy sci-fi drawings to show, but the porn editor — a professional woman — takes one look and asks if she’s a virgin. Yes? Then come back when you’re experienced and can draw more realistically, she suggests. The scene is unexpected and its straight-faced humor takes the story forward.

It only gets better when Yuma decides to take the editor’s advice. We find her dressed up with a pitiful flower in her hair, wheeling herself around Tokyo’s red light district with the intention of buying some sexual education. Hikari has a sure touch directing Kayama, keeping the scene light and funny rather than outrageous and embarrassing. Until, that is, Yuma lands in a private room with a professional gigolo and things go awry.

Rushing to the elevator in humiliation, she meets Mai (the wonderful, warm Makiko Watanabe), a friendly hooker who is in the company of a regular client, a man in a wheelchair. It’s the beginning of a new world opening up for Yuma; maybe not the sexual starburst she had planned, but a non-judgmental friend she can have a good time with on her own terms. Mai and her driver Toshi (Shunsuke Daito) take Yuma to a trans bar where she gets drunk. She also helps the girl buy fashionable clothes and a large dildo, which she carefully sketches in her room to make her pornographic sci-fi story more realistic.

Of course, her mother eventually finds out she’s not at Sayaka’s house as claimed and freaks out. In the third act, Yuma assumes control of her life and sets out in search of her father, a narrative shift that ends in an unconvincing trip abroad. One can feel Hikari’s screenplay searching for an emotional climax and concocting one a little too easily. Still, the final scene between Yuma and her mother is beautifully nuanced and puts everything in perspective, showing how far the girl has come in the short space of the film.

Kayama is an expressive actress who one very much hopes will find more roles onscreen. More calibrated and conventionally moving is Kanno’s trajectory as her mother, who seems so transparent until her hidden drama is revealed.

Production company: Knockonwood Inc.
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Mei Kayama, Misuzu Kanno, Minori Hagiwara, Shunsuke Daito, Makiko Watanabe, Yoshihiko Kumashino, Yuka Itaya

Director-screenwriter: Hikari
Producers: Shin Yamaguchi, Hikari
Executive producers: Kastsuhiro Tsuchiya, Daisuke Sumitomo, Ryuji Yamagata
Directors of photography: Stephen Blahut, Tomoo Ezaki
Production designer: Takashi Uyama
Editor: Thomas A. Krueger
Music: Aska Matsumiya
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
International sales: Films Boutique

115 minutes