Independence is often a hard-fought battle for people with disabilities. Leaving the smothering protections of family and the state can be a double-edged sword: freedom is gained, yes, but can one go back home again?
HIKARI’s Japanese-language film 37 Seconds brilliantly showcases the tension between living a sheltered, restricted existence and wanting to expand one’s horizons. Yuma, a 23-year-old woman living with cerebral palsy, is played – for once – by an actor also living with cerebral palsy, Mei Kayama. Kayama provides not only authenticity to the role but memorably imbues Yuma with both stubbornness and naive idealism.
Yuma is an aspiring manga artist who is hindered both at home and at work. Her mom insists on doing things for Yuma that the young adult wishes to do for herself, such as bathing. Meanwhile, at work, Yuma’s artistic aspirations are cut short because her boss wants to take all the credit. Stifled at every turn of her wheelchair, and not given a moment’s peace, Yuma starts applying for other artist positions, only to learn from one potential employer that she needs to gain life experience (particularly in the area of sex). So, she sets out on a series of misadventures.
What is remarkable about this picture is its refreshing honesty about the small moments in life. As in the movies Gabrielle and The Special Need, 37 Seconds recognizes that independence is gained in small, furtive steps (or in this case, wheel-turns). When Yuma starts dating, we smile for her, even if we know that her dates will go disastrously. When Yuma explores the red-light district, we note that it may not be the most accessible (or safe) area, but also appreciate that some sex workers can be great friends in times of need. If she makes a wrong turn, it’s because she needs to make a wrong turn. We fall, and we get up again, right?
Another impressive aspect of this film is that disability is not seen as being biological, but rather is seen as a social phenomenon. Yuma is hindered by other people’s attitudes of her and by a failure to make the world accessible. Having followed the history of films about disability for some time, this is also a big wheel-turn. A person with a disability is given agency in a movie, and we see how she can manifest the kind of life for herself that she wants.