Japanese society once kept people with physical disabilities out of sight, but no more. It’s becoming more common now to see people in wheelchairs taking trains or otherwise going about their business in Japan’s increasingly barrier-free cities.
In “37 Seconds,” the first feature by singled-named director Hikari (formerly Mitsuyo Miyazaki), the protagonist with a physical disability may have more autonomy than she would have had a generation ago, but still faces formidable challenges in her quest for independence, adulthood and answers about her past.
Played by Mei Kayama, a first-time actress who has cerebral palsy, 23-year-old Yuma is immature and naive when we first meet her, but also driven to experience the dangers and delights of the world outside the safe bubble her devoted, anxious mother has constructed for her.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||115 mins.|
Though something of an idealized role model whose adventures may look like fantasies, especially to viewers with disabilities who would be unable to replicate them in the real world, Yuma is thoroughly believable as a woman overcoming obstacles to realize her entirely normal desires.
It could be argued that a professional actor could play her, similar to Lily Franky’s turn as the cerebral palsy-afflicted lead character of the 2017 drama “Perfect Revolution,” but Kayama inhabits the role so naturally and completely, both emotionally and physically, that the film feels at times more like a docudrama than the director’s scripted fiction.
Living at home with her single mother (Misuzu Kanno), who bathes her, clothes her and babies her, Yuma dreams of becoming a working manga artist. She supplies manga to Sayaka (Minori Hagiwara), a popular blogger who takes credit for them — and snubs Yuma when she comes to Sayaka’s book-signing event.
Trying to sell her work under her own name, Yuma is repeatedly rebuffed until she meets the savvy editor (Yuka Itaya) of an erotic manga magazine, who tells her she has talent but needs real-life experience in her sexy subject matter. Yuma takes this advice to heart, venturing to Tokyo’s Kabukicho red-light district to lose her virginity.
The not-unexpected result is embarrassment and disappointment, but Yuma encounters a warm-hearted sex worker (Makiko Watanabe) and her friendly driver (Shunsuke Daito) who give her a taste of longed-for freedom — and her first-ever intoxication.
Hikari directs these opening scenes with welcome touches of humor and visual beauty, though she doesn’t shy from the difficult realities of Yuma’s condition and situation, from her frustrating struggles with a balky elevator to her pitched battles with her loving but controlling mother.
If this were all, “37 Seconds” might have ended as a conventional-enough drama about disability, but when Yuma goes on a journey to learn more about her family, the film enters another, more incredible dimension, beginning with a flight that lands her in Thailand.
Nonetheless, the film keeps the story centered on Yuma’s private reality, as well as her sweet, quietly stubborn personality. As she learns and understands more about the world, she grows in ways movingly felt, not artificially forced.
Meanwhile, we learn the meaning of the title: When Yuma was born she didn’t breathe for 37 seconds, leaving her with cerebral palsy. Hikari has left us with a fresh, vibrant, extraordinary film that, together with one woman’s triumph over disability, celebrates the everyday miracle of life.
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