Foreign Lens: 37 Seconds (2019)

User Rating: 8

The ‘Foreign Lens’ is a column meant to represent international films and directors with distinct voices, showcasing their part of the world.

Given that National Cerebral Palsy month is currently finishing up, I wanted to do a Foreign Lens piece on cerebral palsy. Growing up as a person with a disability, I was not always fully aware of my choices for independence. My family always told me that I could eventually be independent. Still, I wasn’t always clear on how eventually, I did gain that independence and learned how many freedoms I could possibly enjoy. Now a fully grown adult, I still struggle with my independence at times. In 2020 Netflix released a movie about that very subject called 37 Seconds.

This film centers on an adult in Tokyo, Japan, Yuma, who makes manga books for a living. The biggest issue with the manga books that she creates is that she gets no credit for her work. All the credit for her work goes to her cousin. Yuma acts as an invisible ghostwriter. Yuma is a person with cerebral palsy. Her cerebral palsy affects her differently than mine typically does. Her use of her arms is limited, but she can crawl. 37 Seconds centers on Yuma’s search for independence, precisely her sexual autonomy. She grows up in a very strict household, and her mother, Kyoko, doesn’t want her to interact with the outside world for fear that the world will hurt her somehow.

It’s effortless to say that this film takes you on a journey but what is more complex about this specific journey isn’t her disability; it’s her belief in herself. Mei Kayama is fantastic in her role as Yuma Takeda. Having cerebral palsy herself, she dramatically enhances the believability of the struggles of a 23-year-old girl with that disability. It’s a joy to watch Mei utilize her disability to let viewers into the world that Yuma inhabits. She has a very natural way of acting that makes the story feel alive and real. I know at times, while viewing this film, I felt distraught and uncomfortable with how her character was being treated; that’s only because I’ve been treated the same way myself in various situations.

I’ve never been a parent, but I can imagine the countless hours of fear that would run through my head each day if my child had physical challenges and sincerely wanted to explore the world. For her work as mom Kyoko Takada, Misuzu Kanno can tap into those fears and frustrations, and in many ways, she is a bit of a villain in this story. I hate how much dependence she fosters in Yuma throughout the film. To say that watching her constantly pressure her daughter into certain situations is frustrating is an understatement. Yuma’s treatment by Kyoko borders on cruelty. My favorite scene in the entire movie is after Yuma comes home from a night of drinking with friends that she made in Tokyo. In the scene, Yuma finally has the strength to confront her mother about all of the mistreatment she has experienced because her mother would not let her grow.

We all have experiences of being pigeonholed to one facet of our lives. Yuma’s struggle is never her disability; it’s about how she chooses or chooses not to advocate for herself. By the end of the movie, she is very much capable of making the decisions that she had been afraid of. This is so significant because it provides people with disabilities the chance to see someone similar to them have a voice in their own lives.

None of this would be possible without the direction and writing of Hikari. She can give every moment space to breathe no matter how uncomfortable it may make audiences. She focuses on giving viewers the raw, honest truth of what it’s like to live with a disability, and as a writer, I greatly appreciate that. With every moment being given its own space, you definitely have periods of slowness; those moments are quickly outweighed by the different experiences had by Yuma. I love this film for its representation and raw honesty, but I have continual difficulty with how long it takes Yuma to truly find her voice and use that voice to advocate for her own experiences.

At most, 37 Seconds will educate able-bodied people on the struggles of someone with cerebral palsy. Anytime someone can be educated on how disability affects someone else, especially in film, it’s a good idea. I hope to see more films like this exploring what disability means to young adults, especially how they experience and move through life. That’s the best happy ending I could ever ask for. This proves that knowledge is power and that more disabled people need to be seen on screen because their stories are equally as powerful and engaging.

Written by
Chike has been a film critic in Illinois for the last 10 years with Urbana Public Television. Most of his work can be found on their YouTube channel where his show Reel Reviews is posted. The films he enjoys most are the kind that surprise you with characters that are deeper than you could ever suspect. As much as he loves reviewing it’s the stories that are unexpected that bring him the most joy. He lives in Champaign with his parents surrounded by cornfields.

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