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.