Often I talk about humanism, a desire for the genuine, for sincerity in much of what I consume. When I escape from the world, it is in the hunt for something compassionate and timeless, and even if for a few minutes, I am reminded of the quality of humanity; the extent of emotion, creativity, imagination that runs through veins of the best of us. No matter the worlds conjured by the great minds, behind it all is faith in the human race. But this time I did not have to escape to another realm of fantasy and intrigue to be moved.
37 Seconds is a film I stumbled upon in a search for something more modern for a late night Japanese Cinema binge and I expected something sentimental. It had done well at festivals, a debut feature for it's director Hikari, screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and won some awards there including the Audience Award. I have a lot of time and respect for this particular event and find it can be rather persuasive to me when choosing a watch. Still, I was unsure what kind of film I was about to watch.
The film follows Yuma Takada (Played by new-comer Mei Kayama who has Cerebral Palsy), a 23-year old, Manga artist who wants to branch out on her own. Held back by the cousin she assists on her own series and restrained by an overprotective mother, whilst struggling day to day with her condition. One day she attempts to create an erotic Manga and submit it to a publishing house. However, she is criticised by the editor who finds her work unconvincing, advising her to gain some sexual experience before returning. What seems like a semi-ridiculous request from a stranger turns out to be an enlightening journey for both Yuma and the audiences as we follow her through the highs and lows of her difficult journey of liberation and self-discovery.
It's a taboo subject, especially in Japan where disability is often overlooked in all mainstream media (more taboo is that I liked a Netflix distributed film... the world has shifted axis, trees grow from the sky and fish swim in the clouds). Scenes I had never seen before were put before me with all the discomfort and awkwardness required to be drawn from it's audience. Some scenes are hard to watch, but each as essential as the next to build Yuma's world for us as both creative and a young woman. It's blunt about it's subject and refuses to romanticise any elements
Hikari's style lends perfectly to the story. Opening with constrained shots to mirror the life she is capturing through the lens, she follows Yuma as she would see the world. The red-light districts of the city neon dreams rather than sordid nightmares of, say, Sion Sono film. In fact, her freedom is explored in these places. The style adopted by the filmmaker really adds to the story. Stifling in the restrictions of both her condition and the world conditioned to ignore her. She is treated less than a second-class citizen by day but by night, unites with some wonderful people and is able to enjoy more than just her sexuality. She is taught to live. It is this cast of characters I thought a wonderful supporting cast and gentle but strong addition to Yuma's journey.
More impressive is Hikari's attempt to show all aspects of Yuma's life struggling with cerebral palsy and the complexity of living with disability and their worldview. Often, disability is painted in film as a child-like ignorance of the world, people to be hidden away or rendered sexless by their condition. Yuma is still a young woman. With desire for the touch of others, for her aspirations, for a life beyond her wheelchair. Yet even those closest to her tend to her like a child. and for friendships. She is naïve because she has not been allowed to see the world free of the restrictions of her well-meaning but fretful mother and so many of the mistakes Yuma makes along the way are, understandably, hard to watch. A particularly awkward scene in a love hotel with a less than sensitive male prostitute is both cringe-worthy but enlightening. But his treatment is one of many. She is patronised, fooled and ignored for quite sometime before we meet her allies, a group equally on the fringe of society.
The cast is wonderful. Mei Kayama plays Yuma with a gentle openness that leaves her endearing throughout, a character truly to root for. She carries emotional scenes with such ease and honesty, I would not have believed that it was her debut performance. Makiko Watanabe brings my heart and warmth to her role as Mei, the prostitute who can understand Yuma's needs more than most and Misuzu Kanno balances overbearing-ness and deep love as the girls mother in one of the most genuine performances I've seen this year.
If I had any criticism, it is that I would have liked to have known what happened to Yuma afterwards; if she found love (with who I personally feel would have been a wonderful match although I shall say nothing here for fear of spoilers), how her life is now and the future she has. Of course, this would have made the film ridiculously long and as a storyteller, I can acknowledge how poor a narrative choice this would be. We would have simply been seeing a series of event. But I would love it just the same. For Yuma's journey runs deeper than her need for human contact and physical love. the best thing about 37 Seconds is that this film becomes so much more, explores a world beyond even that of the city she lives in and it is where it takes her that brought a tear or two to my eye.
A hit with me, 37 Seconds made me think hard about the perception of disability on screen but also in day to day life and how our treatment of those with these conditions reflect us as society. Watching this film only made me realise, more so than ever, that across the world we are lacking in our accessibility and representation of this subject matter. That the UK and US still only represent visually palatable disabilities and will rarely explore the harsh realties of living with it. I'm still thinking about it.
"You can't write good stories if you can't live life at it's Fullest"
More importantly I'm still thinking of Yuma and her wonderful story, because she is someone I don't want to forget anytime soon. This story is an inspiration to us all. It's an example of the humanism I seek so relentlessly, the act of kindness, forgiveness and honesty all too rare in this world, and it's the kind that I would recommend to all because sometimes we have to step out of our comfort zones during our 'escapism' for the world to look a little brighter. It will also make living a little more exciting.
Watch 37 Seconds on Netflix now whilst you still can.