Home Theatre: The coming-of-age of a parent-child relationship
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's 37 Seconds, streaming on Netflix
For the third time in a row in this column, I am writing about a piece of cinematic work that can broadly be classified as the coming-of-age story of a female protagonist. In Hiraki's 37 Seconds, currently streaming on Netflix, the protagonist Yuma Takada is a 23-year-old who has cerebral palsy — the title refers to how long she did not breathe after being born, leading to her disability. While Yuma's condition substantially defines her character, that's not all there is to her. Her absent father and her overprotective single mother contribute just as much.
Yuma is a manga artist who is taken advantage of by her childhood friend and YouTube sensation, Sayaka, who passes off Yuma's work as her own. When she wants to get a comic published in her own name, Yuma is shot down by Sayaka's publisher for submitting work that is too similar to 'Sayaka's style'. So, she decides to try her hand at adult comics instead. A sympathetic magazine editor is impressed by her work but feels the sex depicted in it is not authentic due to Yuma's inexperience with physical intimacy. She tells Yuma to go out and lose her virginity and come back with new, improved work. Thus begins Yuma's journey which goes to unexpected places.
What Yuma lacks as much as sexual experience, is confidence in herself. Her hyper-protective mother does not allow her to go anywhere but to work at Sayaka's. And even then, she drops her off to the train or bus and picks her up. At home, she treats Yuma like a helpless child — giving her baths, helping her change, even cutting up her food for her — things which Yuma can do on her own, her cerebral palsy mainly affecting her legs.
Her mother also refuses to allow her to wear nice dresses or go out on her own because there are "so many freaks out there." Yuma hits back with "Don't be ridiculous. No one is the slightest bit interested in me." So it's not just confidence she lacks, she also lacks the freedom to find faith in herself, to be herself. At one point, her mother actually locks her inside the house and takes away her cell phone. Early in her journey, she runs into some drag queens who ask her where she's going. "Where should I go?" Yuma asks them. "That's totally up to you," they tell her. The same words are used by Mai, a kind-hearted sex-worker who befriends Yuma, when the latter confesses that she would like to be intimate with someone but doubts herself every day. This concept of agency is at the heart of 37 Seconds. Yuma is not helpless. She has agency and learns to exercise it.
Some of the devices Hiraki uses to tell Yuma's story are, admittedly, a bit contrived and maybe even fantastical. But the film still feels very real. This is, in large part, because of the casting of first-time actor Mei Kayama, who has cerebral palsy herself, in the lead role. It is, sadly, so rare to see filmmakers choosing someone with a disability to play a character with a disability that it was really touching to see Hiraki thank "all the women who auditioned for the part" in the end credits. It suggests she actually held an audition that several actors with cerebral palsy took part in. If an actor without disability had played the role, there's a good chance they would have focused too much on depicting the physical aspects of the character and possibly gone overboard with it. Kayama, however, brings Yuma's inner workings to life. Her gentleness, her strength, her stubbornness, it's all vividly present in Kayama's unaffected portrayal. Props to Hiraki for not trying to milk Yuma's disability for sympathy and showing her instead in a very empathetic manner. The cinematography deserves a shoutout too for aiding her in a big way; the close-up shots in this film are so lovely.
Due credit also to Misuzu Kanno who plays Yuma's mother, Kyoko. She makes what could have easily been an unsympathetic character into someone we find ourselves pitying and even caring for. Little touches in the writing, like the scene where she dallies a bit to avoid having to ride the elevator with Sayaka's obviously much richer mother, give us a sense of who Kyoko is. And Kanno's performance really brings alive this misguided, but devoted mother who has made her daughter the centre of her life and doesn't know how to let go. Right at the beginning, Kyoko reads a second-hand Shakespeare book to Yuma. "Love like a shadow flies when substance love pursues. Pursuing that that flies, and flying what pursues," she reads out, little understanding the purport of the words. As she reads, she grabs a fork and cuts up some food into bite-sized pieces for Yuma, completely missing the irony of her action. So used is she to treating Yuma as the helpless one that her own helplessness when her daughter leaves is hard for her to come to terms with. Yuma isn't the only one coming of age here, her mother has growing up of her own to do as well. And it's this maturation of their relationship that's at the core of 37 Seconds.