The Japanese film “37 Seconds” is deceptively delicate and quietly tough. Not unlike its protagonist. We first glimpse Yuma as she rides a crowded commuter train in Tokyo. From the camera’s angle, you might think she’s a kid. Her face is tentative, youthful. She’s shorter than the people around her because she’s in a wheelchair. She has cerebral palsy — as does Mae Kayama, the actress who portrays her — and she has been the sole concern of her mother since her father left, shortly after her birth.
Writer-director Hikari’s first feature won two prizes in the Panorama section of the Berlin Film Festival last February, followed by an international festival run. Americans can find it on Netflix. Well-paced, artfully shot and edited, “37 Seconds” mixes anime and illustration with live-action to tell the story of the 23-year-old aspiring artist seeking liberation. Yuma ghost writes friend Sayaka’s manga comics. This questionable bestie is all too happy taking credit for Yuma’s labor.
When it becomes clear Sayaka is going to stand in the way of her achieving any artistic success on her own, Yuma applies for a job as an artist at a manga publishing house that prints erotica. The publisher (played by Japanese actor-newscaster Yuka Itaya) tells her that she needs to have sex to really create convincing adult manga. She sets Yuma on a course for, well, intercourse. That it’s a vexed and sweet adventure is part of what makes “37 Seconds” insightful.
Desire is one of the things that makes us human. Too often people with disabilities are treated on screen as if they are asexual. Like the Sundance hit doc “Crip Camp” (also Netflix), “37 Seconds” challenges that.
While 23 may sound a little old to be coming of age, for a young woman infantilized by her mother, the timing makes sense. Kanno But how to meet that special — or not — someone? Some furtive attempts at dating find her guiding her wheelchair into the red-light district. She has a close encounter with a rent boy, only to have it end with both of them apologizing.
Makiko Watanabe exudes an easy charm as Mai, the practiced, personable sex worker who befriends Yuma. Actor and disability advocate Yoshihiko Kumashino (who has cerebral palsy) plays her best client. The actor founded a not-for-profit organization that deals with sexuality and disability. As his character wheels Mai through streets populated with sex toy shops, drag bars and karaoke clubs, he looks to be having a ball. And so does Yuma, who finds a tentative liberation in the company of Mai and her driver Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito).
Japan lags behind the U.S. in acknowledging the lives of its citizens with disabilities. Yuma’s initial isolation reflects the situation. A social worker, Kayama is a find. Yuma’s soft-as-a-whisper voice makes her seem more childlike than she actually is, and Kumashino’s day job as an advocate suggests changes are brewing.
The more liberated Yuma becomes, the more her mother puts her on lockdown. When she escapes — speeding out of a clinic — her frantic mom wants to file a missing person report. “She can’t even raise her voice to cry for help!” she shouts at the policeman. The irony of her yelling isn’t lost on him — or us.
Misuzu Kanno strikes a difficult balance as Yuma’s hovering mother. She must be overbearing enough that she’s nearly impossible to sympathize with. But she has to leave room for us to understand, to forgive. After an ugly scene in which mother and daughter say surgically cutting things to the each other, it’s hard to imagine the two reconciling.
Yuma’s adventure leads her further away from home than she ever imagined. “You’ve taken a big step. You better not f— it up,” Mai tells her after she pulls off her 5 mph escape. Sometimes fleeing is the only way back.