A heartwarming crowd-pleaser about a young Japanese woman with cerebral palsy which builds to an unconvincing — albeit touching — climax.
Freedom comes in many forms, and for 23-year-old Yuma (Mei Kayama), a manga artist confined to a wheelchair and without control of the muscles in her legs and one of her arms, freedom exists in her mind. That isn’t to say that she sees her cerebral palsy or the chair it keeps her seated in as any kind of prison; on the contrary, she is at peace with who she is, and how free her mind and soul can be, even if her body cannot comply with their wanderlust. She is warm and spirited and good – the rarest of things.
Yuma is also why 37 Seconds, the already-acclaimed feature debut of short filmmaker Hikari, deserves to be seen. So often is disability representation tokenistic; so often do narratives about disabled people hone in on the prejudice of others, as if those with disabilities are defined entirely by how the able-bodied perceive them. This film, out today on Netflix after delighting festival audiences, is not like that. It might hew close to those aspects of Yuma’s life that are defined by her having cerebral palsy, which are admittedly most of them, but it does not cast its heroine as a victim or those around her as oppressors. It’s frank and real and oftentimes funny and frequently touching. It is, in other words, about a full life lived with enthusiasm – again, the rarest of things.
First impressions here might suggest a different film, one in which Yuma’s babying at the hands of her single mother (Misuzu Kanno) and betrayal by childhood friend and “influencer” Sayaka (Minori Hagiwara) lead somewhere more clichéd and less daring. But 37 Seconds introduces these elements only to have them inspire Yuma to pursue her own creative freedom and sexual awakening. Her journey of self-discovery takes her to the offices of an adult comics editor and eventually to Tokyo’s red-light district. Written down this sounds farcical, and it is unexpected, but Hikari has a deft touch; watching some of these scenes is like watching a bomb squad calmly snip wires.
Yuma eventually falls in with kindly prostitute Mai (Makiko Watanabe) and her driver Toshi (Shunsuke Daito) and begins researching a pornographic sci-fi manga story in earnest, her real world opening up new avenues in her fictional one, and vice versa. Lots of this is excellent, and while 37 Seconds builds to an unconvincing dénouement, it’s still able to find convincing drama and emotion even when you can see the artifice allowing for it. It all goes back to Kayama, always latched onto the beating heart of a role that could have taken this unconventionally moving drama to all kinds of places without having to move at all.
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