Review: ’37 Seconds,’ starring Mei Kayama

January 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in "37 Seconds"
Mei Kayama and Misuzu Kanno in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

“37 Seconds”

Directed by Hikari

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Set primarily in modern-day Japan and with some scenes in Thailand, the dramatic film “37 Seconds” has an Asian cast of characters, and the protagonist is a young female illustrator who has cerebral palsy.

Culture Clash: The movie depicts the struggles and prejudices that a person with physical challenges must constantly face, as well as personal conflicts between a mother and a daughter.

Culture Audience: “37 Seconds” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in Japanese movies or movies that give the rare opportunity of making someone with cerebral palsy the star of the story.

Mei Kayama and Shunsuke Daitô in “37 Seconds” (Photo courtesy of Knockonwood)

One of the first things that people need to know about the Japanese drama “37 Seconds” is that it’s not a “disease of the week” depressing movie where people are supposed to feel sorry for someone with a physical disorder. Nor is it the type of movie where the person with the physical challenge enters a competition to face seemingly insurmountable odds. The story of “37 Seconds” (written and directed by Hikari) is about a much more subtle self-awakening that happens to an aspiring manga artist in modern-day Tokyo.

When we see the wheelchair-bound Yuma Takada (played by Mei Kayama) in the first few scenes of the movie, she’s shown to be someone who likes to be as independent as possible, as she takes public transportation around town. Yuma lives with her overprotective single mother, Kyoko (Misuzu Kanno), who still insists on bathing Yuma, even though her daughter has full use of her hands.

Yuma, who is 23 but looks like she could be in her late teens, has a part-time job working as an assistant for her pretty cousin Sayaka (played by Minori Hagiwara), a semi-famous manga artist, who has her own YouTube channel and loves to wear Harajuku fashion. Yuma is as shy and insecure as Sayaka is bold and confident.

At one of Sayaka’s book signings, Yuma unexpectedly attends as a show of her support, but Yuma gets a rude awakening when she finds out that Sayaka has been telling people that she doesn’t have an assistant. (And that’s not the only thing that Sayaka lies about when it comes to her work.) Feeling hurt and unappreciated, Yuma decides to pursue plans she started earlier to do some freelance artwork. Yuma makes cold calls to several manga publishing companies to find out if they’re looking for new artists.

She’s automatically rejected by places that don’t take unsolicited material. But one place is willing to give her a chance, and she’s able to get an interview immediately. The only catch? It’s at a magazine called Weekly Boom, which publishes erotic manga. Yuma, who’s a naïve virgin, is just happy to get an opportunity to be hired as an artist, so she goes to the interview, not really knowing what to expect.

The female Weekly Boom editor (played by Yuri Ono) who interviews Yuma takes a look at Yuma’s artwork and explains to her that if she gets hired at the company, she would have to draw sexually explicit art. The interviewer isn’t concerned with Yuma’s cerebral palsy; she’s more concerend about how much Yuma actually knows about sex. When she asks Yuma if she’s ever been sexually intimate with anyone, Yuma tells her the truth and says she’s a virgin. The interviewer tells Yuma to come back when she’s sexually experienced.

Yuma goes home and researches porn on the Internet so she can get an idea of what she can draw. Still curious, she decides to try and find a man online so she can lose her virginity to him. That leads to a series of somewhat comical blind dates whom she meets in a café. One date is a shy social misfit like Yuma, and he basically admits that he’s a recluse who’s too scared to have sex with anyone. Another date is a flamboyant eccentric who seems like he probably isn’t sexually attracted to women. The last date she meets with is a nice guy who says he would have no problem hanging out with her but he doesn’t want to take her virginity.

The next thing you know, Yuma is in a seedy area of Tokyo where the streets are lined with sex shops and massage parlors. She asks a pimp (played by Kiyohiko Shibukawa) on the street how she can hire a male prostitute. He makes a phone call and manages to find a gigolo who’s available to do the deed, so Yuma arranges to meet the guy later in a hotel that she’s rented. (The movie doesn’t really explain where Yuma has gotten the money, but it’s presumed that she gets some kind of disability income from the government.)

All of this looks fairly convincing, since Yuma has the type of unassuming personality where it seems plausible that she could go up to a pimp on the street with this request and he’d be willing to help her. Because Yuma isn’t the type of young woman whom predators would consider “sexy,” because she’s in a wheelchair, it’s entirely believable that she could go to this sleazy area and not be targeted for sex crimes. As far as a pimp is concerned, a woman in a wheelchair is of no use to him, and he actually might feel sorry for her.

Yuma’s encounter with the gigolo is one of the most amusing parts of the movie. Let’s just say that some akward things happen, so he gives her a discount on his regular fee. The encounter with the gigolo is important to mention because after Yuma leaves the hotel room and gets ready to leave, she notices that the elevator doesn’t work, so she calls for help.

It’s during this situation that she meets two people who will change the course of her life in this story. One is a middle-aged female prostitute named Mai (played by Makiko Watanabe) and her “caretaker”/driver Toshi (played by Shunsuke Daitô), who’s in his 20s. When Yuma first meets them in the hotel hallway, Mai is also with a wheelchair-bound customer, a senior citizen named Mr. Kuma (played by Yoshihiko Kumashino), who is clearly infatuated with Mai.

Seeing that Yuma is alone and kind of stranded at the hotel, Mai and Toshi offer to give her a ride home so that she doesn’t have to take public transportation. The four of them pile into a van, and Yuma reveals why she was at the hotel. Because Yuma doesn’t pass judgment on what Mai does for a living, she and Mai form a fast friendship.

On another day, she calls Mai, who takes Yuma out for some fun around town. First, they go to a sex shop where Mai buys Yuma a dildo that Yuma has picked out because she thinks it looks cute. Then, Mai takes Yuma shopping for new clothes and then to a beauty parlor where Yuma gets her hair and makeup done. After that, they end up at a gay bar watching some of the patrons doing karaoke, and Yuma gets drunk on sake.

Meanwhile, Yuma’s mother Kyoko suspects that something is going on with her daughter, so she snoops through Yuma’s belongings while Yuma is out of the house. She’s shocked to find the erotic drawings that Yuma has made as practice. So by the time Yuma gets home, she’s very drunk, and her mother is furious and confronts her over what she has found in Yuma’s room.

They have a big argument where Kyoko says that Yuma can’t survive without here. Yuma retorts by saying that she can, but that her mother is too afraid to be alone. And then Yuma blurts out something that deeply hurts her mother and makes her back out of the room: Yuma says her absent father left because he couldn’t stand to be with Kyoko.

One of the best things about “37 Seconds” is that the story could have gone in a very predictable way for the rest of the movie, but the story takes a turn that most people will not expect at all. It’s enough to say that secrets are revealed, including the full reason why the movie is titled “37 Seconds.”

Kayama, who has cerebral palsy in real life, makes her film debut with “37 Seconds,” and she admirably carries the movie with a performance that shows Yuma’s emotional transformation. But as Yuma’s mother Kyoko, actress Kanno has the most heartbreaking moment in the film. This movie is recommended for anyone who wants to discover a story about unique people who experience an unpredictable and poignant turn of events.

Netflix premiered “37 Seconds” in the U.S. and Canada on January 31, 2020.