This coming-of-age odyssey is instigated by one of the great cringe-worthy suggestions in the history of publishing.
Yuma has cerebral palsy, is 23 and confined to a wheelchair. She is also a talented manga artist, hoping to break free of the Youtube pixie, Sayaka, who publishes her work and steals all the credit. That’s why she’s meeting with a publisher of manga porn, the kinkier side of Japanese comic books.
“Artists draw from experience,” the publisher (played by Japanese broadcaster Yuka Itaya) complains (in Japanese, with English subtitles). “But you don’t have any. The sex scenes…don’t feel authentic.”
Go out and get some experience, she says with a crass wink. Then we’ll see.
“37 Seconds” is a remarkably frank and surprisingly warm depiction of disability, care-giving and sexuality. Writer-director Hikari (Mitsuyo Miyazaki), with her debut feature film, doesn’t shy away from anything in showing 23 year-old Yuma’s quest to get “experience.” And she takes pains to not let that, with its titillating possibilities, take over this story of finding yourself, your voice and your independence when confined to a wheelchair.
Here’s what Yuma, played by first-time actress Mei Kayam, who has cerebral palsy, is up against. The genetic illness is just the beginning.
Her mother (Misuzu Kanno) is smothering, never wanting to let her do anything on her own. Yuma can take the train to work, but Mom must pick her up, insists on cooking for her and even bathes with her.
Then there’s the boss, one of those cotton-candy-wigged Japanese nymphets with the mousey voice and the popular Youtube brand, to which she’s added a popular manga. She (Minori Hagiwara) insists to interviewers, “I work alone!” But who knows how much she actually draws?
Yuma creates the manga on sketchpads and digital tablets. Yuma meets deadlines. Yuma gets zero credit and very little pay as Sayaka cannot be convinced the PR value of having a disabled artist as her “assistant” would be pay off in sales.
Yuma is shy, her voice a squeaky whisper. But by Godzilla, she’s been told to do something about her “cherry,” and that’s what she’ll do. Studying porn on the Internet might help. But the real research is in the red light district, where sex workers of every “pronoun” under the Rising Sun can be procured.
One characteristic of Yuma’s journey is the kindness she encounters in this world. Flattery from transgender performers, and even sympathy from the seemingly-all-business gigolo she hires makes up for how badly things can go wrong with your “first time.”
And then she stumbles into Mai (Makiko Watanabe), wheeling around with her “favorite client” (actor and disability activist Yoshihiko Kumashino). Yuma’s horizons grow, in an instant.
The most dramatic scenes pitch the daughter rebelling for her independence and her mother fighting back by restricting it. Kayama, a social worker in real life, holds her own with veteran actress Kanno, who makes the mother fierce, paranoid but still sympathetic.
Mom complains about “creeps” and “freaks out there” in the big bad city. But the film’s joys are in the lurid world of Kabukichō, Tokyo’s red light district.
The culture clash for North American viewers of “37 Seconds” is in the professionalism and compassion in the film’s depiction of the sex worker trade.
But Hikari’s eagerness to not let this “sex trip” take over her movie, to not make it all about “How I Got My Manga Published,” leads to some over-reaching. Yuma’s story grows more complicated, and those expanding horizons take her to Thailand.
Not for reasons you might think.
That detour never stops “37 Seconds” cold, but we never lose the sense that it is indeed a detour and probably superfluous to the plot, if not the title.
It’s still an eye-opening, heart-warming deep dive into multiple cultures — Japan, cerebral palsy, sex workers and manga.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, nudity
Cast: Mei Kayama, Misuzu Kanno, Shunsuke Daito, Makiko Watanabe, Yuka Itaya, Minori Hagiwara
Credits: Written and directed by Hikari. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:55