The Lone Ume Tree (2021) by Kotaro Wajima

An elderly single-mother and her autistic adult son battle against local prejudices in this family drama. Tamako Yamada (Mariko Kaga) works as a fortune-teller while caring for her son Tadao (Muga Tsukaji), familiarly known as Chu-san, who has autism. When new neighours the Satomura’s move in next door, they come into conflict with the Yamada’s over a plum tree that is overhanging the path beside their house. Head of the house Shigeru (Ikkei Watanabe) has little sympathy for Tadao’s condition, while his wife Eiko (Yoko Moriguchi) and son Sota (Taiyo Saito), get to know and understand their neighours circumstances. Deciding that Tadao would benefit from more independence, Tamako decides to move him to a local group home for others with similar conditions; but this also raises concerns from the local population who feel threatened by the behaviour of the residents.

“The Lone Ume Tree”, written and directed by Kotaro Wajima, depicts the issues involved with raising autistic children and some of the negative reactions they provoke. Chu-san’s unusual interactions, never making eye-contact, responding in terse statements, doesn’t endear him to his neighbours and many of them seem unwilling to accommodate his behaviour, instead more concerned with their own lives or businesses. Comedian Muga Tsukaji does a good job as Chu-san, depicting his autism in a realistic way, but also showing the love he has for his mother which is often hard for him to display outwardly. Veteran actress Mariko Kaga is also perfectly cast as Tamako, an independent spirit whose energy and devotion to her son is inspiring. The supporting cast, including the neighbours, residents of the care home and locals give a great sense of a real community, with positive and negative responses to Chu-san showing the range of reactions to living with such conditions. Hiromitsu Ishikawa off-beat score is a great counterpart to the drama, representing Chu-san’s peculiar view of the world.

The plum tree of the title acts as a symbol of Chu-san’s own condition. We learn that it was planted by Chu-san’s father before he left Tamako and it has an almost symbiotic relationship with the character. Chu-san is distraught when someone comes to cut off the overhanging branches leading to it remaining as it is. While both the plum tree and Chu-san are seen as troublesome to their neighbours, they both represent life in all its awkward and uncompromising variety. The neighbours, at first distressed by the tree and Chu-san, learn to accept them as part of the environment. It is a novel way to express this notion that we should avoid antagonism and seek acceptance of things that may seem frustrating but are in fact the essence of humanity.

See Hear Love (2023) by John H. Lee

A popular manga artist, Shinji Izumoto (Tomohisa Yamashita), begins to experience headaches, possibly due to long hours working on his series “Only for You”. With the series due to be turned into a major film and Shinji’s fortunes on the rise, tragedy strikes when he his blinded by an illness. With the series on hiatus, one of his fans, a deaf woman, Hibiki Aida (Yuko Araki), sets out to find him. After a difficult initial encounter these two fall in love and begin a relationship. But more trouble lies ahead as an admirer of Hibiki’s (Mahiro Takasugi) has his sights set on her; and Shinji’s condition turns out to be more serious that first thought.

Based on a Korean web manga, “See Hear Love” is a stylish romantic drama that tugs at the heartstrings, with the tried and tested formula of love and tragedy. Both Shinji and Hibiki are sympathetic characters and we see a little of their struggles, but their relationship also develops into something beyond their shared experience with disabilities. Tomohisa Yamashita captures the frustration of the artist becoming blind, his despair matched only by his determination when he meets Hibiki; while Yuko Araki’s expressive performance makes her likeable and relatable despite uttering very few words. The two create a couple who are likeable and sympathetic with Shinji’s desire to complete his manga, and Hibiki’s strong-willed support for him and help in overcoming his loss of sight. This relationship is the backbone of the film and an emotional rollercoaster. The film also features a subplot involving the attempts of another man to steal Hibiki away from Shinji and this is where things come a little off the rails. The supporting cast involved in these seem to be acting in a completely different movie, and every time it intrudes in the main narrative it is mostly superfluous comic relief. It ties in to the story as things progress, but for the most part it feels like a separate slapstic romantic comedy has been spliced into this heartwarming central plot. That aside, there is enough to recommend the film that this tonal inconsistancy can be largely shrugged off. In a film focusing on both a loss of sight and hearing, the film’s visuals and score are beautiful, emphasising the value both main characters put on these senses. John H. Lee’s crisp direction and glossy cinematography bring a Christmas-card sentimentality to the film; while the score, by Joon-tai Kim and Jae-Hyuk Seo, featuring classical guitar, piano and strings, and a swelling emotional theme, is in the best traditions of the blockbuster tragi-romance.

“See Hear Love” is self-aware enough to recognize that the circumstances of the plot are entirely intended to provoke sympathy. Shinji’s own manga is in this same genre and there is discussion of the overuse of tragic clichés employed to such effect. We feel instant sympathy for Shinji and Hibiki due to their situation, but neither demand pity, both being wilful, intelligent and strong individuals. They do not feel their disabilities, remaining alert to the world around them. The beauty in their relationship is the focus on togetherness and both physical and emotional proximity. Unable to see or hear, instead the most important quality they offer one another is simply being there. A second subplot concerns Shinji’s attempts to see his artistic vision honoured, while his publisher attempts to force a crass, melodramatic ending to his series. Shinji’s belief in the power of love to transform lives and to overcome all obstacles provides the strength he needs to continue. A sentimental love story that creates a unique couple in Shinji and Hibiki. Despite some lurches into cliché itself, the film presents an intelligent look at both disability and romance in the modern era.

Hitsudan Hostess (2010) by Hajime Takezono

This television drama tells the true story of Rie Saito, a deaf woman who became the number one hostess in Ginza. After contracting meningitis as a young child, Rie is left without her hearing. Her mother (Yoshiko Tanaka) is determined that she achieve her potential, encouraging her daughter to take calligraphy and other classes. After being bullied at school, Rie (Keiko Kitagawa) drops out and starts work at a clothing store. When the store closes she is left with few options and little idea of what to do with her life. A chance encounter with a hostess working at a nearby club offers her a chance to begin a new career, one that her mother is less than pleased with. Rie soon becomes popular at the club and later moves from her home town in Aomori Prefecture, leaving her parents and older brother, to Tokyo in order to work as a hostess in the exclusive Ginza District.

Based on Saito’s own memoirs, with a screenplay by Ayako Kato, the story is a poignant and heartwarming story of triumph over adversity. It is hard not to be moved by her ordeals growing up with hearing loss, struggling to communicate with friends, feeling isolated, being made fun of, bullied and abused by classmates. It is not until she becomes a hostess that her intelligence and charm are fully recognized and she begins to gain popularity, the customers seeing her virtues and not her disability. Keiko Kitagawa gives a great performance a Rie, vulnerable yet determined and able to convey deep emotion without dialogue. Yoshiko Tanaka is also excellent as her mother, and the two share a tearjerking scene towards the end, communicated entirely without words. Seiji Fukushi plays Rie’s brother Satoshi, and his narration structures the drama, explaining various events. It is an interesting choice, and often superfluous, stating the obvious at times. Music supervisor Naoki Yamauchi provides a sentimental score that underlines the turbulent emotions of the characters. Being a made-for-television drama, there are moments where a lack of budget is apparent, but being small-scale the story doesn’t suffer for it.

As is explained in a brief summary at the end of the film, Rie Saito has become an important figure in the fight for recognition and acceptance of disability in Japanese society. She became a member of a local council which implemented text-to-speech systems to help representatives engage at meetings. She wishes to make Japan more inclusive for those with all kinds of disability to fully participate in society. There is a strong theme throughout the film of communication, with Rie losing her ability to communicate, her speech impacted by her hearing loss, yet later finding herself empowered with her pen and notepad. It is mentioned in the film that the writing down of her words had a powerful impact on her clients, as both she and they found themselves able to express themselves truthfully in writing in a way that speaking did not allow. In the aforementioned scene, Rie and her mother find themselves finally able to communicate honestly and openly with each other after many years of bad feeling between them. This powerful message, about the importance of communication and understanding, not only perfectly encapsulates Rie’s own journey but also is a strong call for all people not to ignore those in need, to speak honestly and openly, and to try to understand one another.

37 Seconds (2019) by Hikari

Yuma (Mei Kayama) lives with her mother and works as a manga artist with a popular writer/artist Sayaka. She has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, but this doesn’t affect her positive outlook despite repeated knockbacks. Sayaka seems to feel ashamed of her, not wishing her to take part in fan meeting events; their publisher seems wary of putting her in the limelight; and her mother (Misuzu Kanno), although kind, is stifling her sense of independence. Through it all Yuma puts on a brave face, but is clear that she wants more from life. When she finds a stash of pornographic manga dumped in a local park, she decides to contact the publisher looking for work. At an interview, she is told that her art is exceptional, but she clearly lacks sexual experience as her sex scenes are unrealistic. Yuma then sets out to gain more independence and have a sexual encounter, along the way making friends with a prostitute Mai (Makiko Watanabe) and the owner of a love hotel, Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito). Following an argument with her mother, she decides to set out and find out what happened to her father, who left shortly after her birth.

“37 Seconds” is a heart-breaking look at a young woman living with disability and all the issues that entails. Early in the film we see her difficulty in navigating steps and her home, having to be helped into the bath by her mother. Her treatment by Sayaka and others is never outright abusive, but represents a casual cruelty in the shame or dismissive attitudes to Yuma because of her condition. At heart it is a journey of self-discovery and by the end of the film there is an uplifting sense of hope built upon the sadness that has gone before. The first half of the film is almost a light sex comedy/drama about Yuma’s various attempts to have a sexual encounter, including hiring a male prostitute, visiting a sex shop, and later hiding her dildo and fancy underwear from her mother. The story then transitions into something more akin to a family drama, with her search for her father, and eventually meeting with her twin sister in Thailand. This is an interesting and important twist as it turns on its head the expectations of the first half: that sex will be the ultimate achievement; instead leading Yuma to the realization that there are more important things, such as family. She comes to understand through her various encounters that she is able to dictate her life for herself, that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want just because people around her are asking her to do it. In fact, at the end of the movie she has not done what she set out to, instead creating her own unique manga vision and receiving praise for that.

Mei Kayama gives an incredible performance as Yuma, and we are completely carried along on her journey of self-discovery. The early scenes are difficult to watch as she is ignored or looked down upon, but it is heartening to see her blossom and gain the strength to stand up to those around her and set out to get what she wants. The supporting cast all to a terrific job, with Misuzu Kanno as her mother, Makiko Watanabe as the no-nonsense Mai, who teaches her important lessons about friendship and sex and the difference between them, and Shunsuke Daito as Toshiyama, whose kindness encourages Yuma to strike out for her independence. There is even a short cameo by Kiyohiko Shibukawa.

Written and directed by Hikari (Mitsuyo Miyazaki), the film explores the experience of a disabled person, with relevance to the treatment of disability in society at large. By giving us an insight into Yuma’s life it not only engenders compassion and understanding for their situation, but also a realisation of the commonality shared by them as human; their humour, sadness, happiness, sexual needs, and desire for friendship and family, are no different than anyone else, something that is sadly easy to forget for many people. The film is well directed and features a stunning cast. Definitely worth a watch as it shows themes of growing and gaining independence from a perspective that is not often seen on screen.

Radiance (2017)

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) works as a writer of audio-descriptions for films for the blind and partially sighted. She is working with a test group to write the script for a moving film about dementia and loss. One of the group, Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), was once a famous photographer who is now coming to terms with a degenerative condition meaning the slow loss of his sight. The two have an uncomfortable relationship, with Masaya frustrated about his loss of sight, and Misako frustrated about her inability to convey the emotional content of the film in words. Slowly the two come to an understanding of one another.

Naomi Kawase writes and directs this touching drama on the subject of loss and understanding. It is great to see a film focussing on the issue of visual impairment and the film is in part about understanding those whose experiences are different from your own. The lead actors do a fantastic job with their characters. Ayame Misaki has a sharp edge beneath her kind-hearted exterior. Frustrated by her inability to accurately describe the film for her test group, and also suffering her own troubles with the slow deterioration of her mother’s dementia, Misako is a relatable and interesting protagonist. Masatoshi Nagase is also excellent as Nakamori. We can feel through his performance that this is a man who has lived a full life before losing his sight and is finding it hard to adjust. Both are somewhat prickly characters, understandably so, and this lack of sentimentality makes the film more enjoyable than a predictable romantic drama. The supporting cast, especially those playing the test subjects for the audio commentary do a great job. Oftentimes those with disabilities are used to gain sympathy, but here they are given time to share their feelings and, to some extent, speak on behalf of the blind community regarding their treatment in society. The only moment I found was undeserved was between Ozaki and Nakamori as they look out over a sunset. It seemed to come from nowhere, but even this can be read as a moment of exasperation rather than a romantic trope. Kawase’s script is lively and well-paced, moving between Misako and Masaya’s stories and using variations on the theme of loss and multiple perspectives to keep things interesting. The direction is intimate and beautiful at times, further emphasising exactly what Masaya has lost.

The film has a lot to say about how people perceive the world. In contrast to many portrayals, the blindness here acts not as a metaphor for ignorance, but rather gives us a gateway to a deeper level of perception. Misako comes to understand that it she is the one who is unable to see things clearly. Her group explain to her that some things, such as emotions, cannot and should not be explained. There are some things that simply cannot be described in words. This may seem obvious and cliched, but the film does a great job of showing this as well as explaining it. In a scene where Misako is walking around describing her actions we are made aware that this is not telling us everything. For example, it tells us nothing about what she is thinking, her emotional state, her history, her background. “Radiance” also acts as a commentary on film and art too, in Misako’s work and Masaya’s photographs. Art is a way for humans to make sense of the world and communicate with one another. It is necessarily imperfect, but it is one of the best ways we have of translating our inner lives to a medium where they can be appreciated, if not fully understood, by others.

The idea of loss is also a defining theme of the film. The loss of sight, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of memories or even of self through dementia. A constant refrain in the film refers to the unbelievable tragedy of something disappearing before you. Again, Kawase approaches the subject in an interesting way, using the visuals of burning photographs and layering the film with several different interpretations of this concept to make the point forcefully. A moving film that rises above simple sentimentality to tell a story that is powerful and timeless.