Disability drama meets the struggling artist tale in 37 Seconds, a bittersweet story about affirming your place in the world. Mixing laughs and discovery with a sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of living with cerebral palsy, it’s one of Japan’s best crowd-pleasers since Departures.
Yuma (Mei Kayama) is a drawing assistant to Sayaka (Kanno Misuzu), a Manga artist with a massive following on YouTube. She has aspirations of her own, and so sends her own samples to Sayaka’s publisher. In a cruel twist of fate, he rejects her work, saying that it has too many similarities to Yasuko, heavily implying that Yuma is the driving voice behind the entire operation. Inspired by a pile of Hentai magazines she sees in the park, she applies to become an adult comic writer. The only problem is that she’s never had sex, lacking that crucial experience needed to (ahem) flesh out her tales. This sets her off on a sexual odyssey that moves in a mysterious, yet deeply human way.
To describe any more of the plot or the strange characters Yuma meets along the way would be to ruin the way it takes a pretty simple idea — a disabled woman learns to enjoy sex — and spins it to say something far more profound about the human condition. Delving into the love hotel scene, the drag circuit, and even the world outside of Japan, 37 Seconds moves in unexpected yet fitting ways, giving its developments real weight. Even when the schmaltz is laid on a little too thick — including a super-poppy soundtrack — Mei Kayama’s fine performance grounds the film in very real concerns about being disabled in a world not designed for you.
Few films have highlighted the awkwardness that able-bodied people have around those with disabilities, fears often rooted in ignorance. The best step is more portrayals such as these, which normalise the disabled experience. After all, Yuma has other problems other than merely overcoming disability. Her desire for sex and intimacy, as well as wanting to succeed as an artist, are universal concerns. They’re merely more difficult to achieve because of her disability.
In many ways, 37 Seconds recalls Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot in that both characters are wheelchair-bound comic artists. It also has the same imaginative edge, allowing us to peer into Yuma’s mind as she creates whole worlds with just her fingers. In one scene, she stares up at the otherworldly buildings of Tokyo and imagines that she was sent by aliens as an experiment, allowing us to process the world as she sees it. Crucially, she isn’t defined by her artistry either — the film sidesteps the clichés of conventional disabled artist stories in favour of strong character work.
This is complemented by imaginative, intuitive direction from first-time director HIKARI, who has such great affection for all her characters. Even Yuma’s stern mother isn’t a cruel stereotype, but someone whose concern for her daughter’s well-being has simply tipped over into restrictiveness. It all comes together to create a delicate and sentimental work that asserts the eternal power of the human spirit.
The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.