37 Seconds: A Journey out of Helplessness
37 Seconds focuses on the life of Yuma Takada played by newcomer Mei Kayama, as a talented manga artist whose struggle to make a name for herself in her career weaves it's way into her search for independence. This drama film was written and directed by Hikari whose previous films , Tsuyako(2011) and Where We Begin(2015), also center around women.
Our protagonist, Yuma, was born with cerebral palsy, just like the actress who plays her. This has led Yuma's mother to become overbearing and Yuma lives a very sheltered life. At the age of 23 she is ghostwriting for Sayaka, a cousin and supposed best friend who cares more about her own success than anything else. The beginning of the film firmly establishes its focus on Yuma's career and talent as an artist as well as the blatant disrespect and disregard she receives from those around her. Yuma then decides to branch out of her current job to try and advance her career elsewhere however, she is told she needs more life experience, specifically sexual, in order to make her drawings more realistic. In this way the film doesn't shy away from the sexuality of disabled individuals, something that has become more common with shows like Dating on the Spectrum which show the reality of dating for non-neurotypical individuals.
But as the film continues the plot starts to loose some of its focus on Yuma's career and instead begins to delve into Yuma's identity, her relationship with her mother and the unknown history of her parents. While this creates a sort of disconnect between the beginning and middle of the film, it is this part of the film that is the strongest.
In her search for experience Yuma meets a female prostitute named Mai whose customer also has cerebral palsy. This opens the door for the two to begin a friendship, along with the caretaker Toshiya. Through magnificent portrayals of the part of both Kayama and Misuzu Kanna, who portrays Yuma's mother, the complexity of their relationship is explored. Yuma's mother walks the line between care and control so finely that we as an audience never doubt the love she has for her daughter but at the same time recognize the way in which she inhibits Yuma's autonomy. The peak of their conflicts results in Yuma running away in a search for her father, who had left when she was young. Her search reveals the she had a twin sister at birth, one who is able-bodied. After meeting her sister Yuma says, "If I had started breathing even one second earlier, maybe I would've been like her [her sister]. I'd be free just like her. But I'm glad it was me."
37 Seconds in its outcome seems to look at disability in a way that media often neglects. Yuma acknowledges that her life as a disabled person is a struggle, not only because of her physical limitations but because of the way people view and treat her. Beyond this, Yuma also acknowledges that while it would have been nice to have been born without a disability she is still grateful that it happened to her. This statement can be looked at in two ways. On one hand this can sound self-sacrificial, that she would prefer to bear the pain of her experience over having her sister experience that pain. This is how I first believed this statement was meant but when thinking of it more I began to wonder if this is how Yuma truly came to accept herself and her life. Very often in films we see this wistfulness of disabled characters to have lives in which they are not disabled. But in a way this invalidates the lives if disabled people, as if they are incapable of living full and complete lives. 37 Seconds handles this well. While showing that Yuma has limitations, as a disable person she is still able to live a full life after she comes to terms with herself and realizes that there is a place for her in the world.
What starts as a journey to explore her sexuality becomes something much deeper. In the end the foucs is brought back to her career with the publisher who had told her to get more life experience commenting on the talent she possesses, indicating that Yuma has managed to achieve both the independence and happiness that she had craved.