37 Seconds was written and directed by Hikari, the one-word nom de plume of Mitsuyo Miyazaki. She’s previously written and directed shorts, but this is her first feature-length film. She treats the subject matter with respect, and mines surprising depth. It would have been easy to make Yuma into a one-dimensional hero, but she is presented as a multi-faceted, realistic human. She gets frustrated and upset, her actions have consequences on the people around her, yet she can still be hopeful or joyous. Hikari isn’t afraid of long close-ups on Yuma’s face so we can see her emotional reaction, from anger to perseverance to the ecstatic highs of friendship.
The other side of the story is Yuma’s mother, played by Misuzu Kanno. Her entire life is caring for Yuma, and when her daughter starts gaining a measure of independence, she reacts by becoming even more controlling. She’s a kind of antagonist, but not a simple one. As the film unfolds, we get to learn a bit more about her backstory, and she’s also given an opportunity for growth.
“If you go in with pity, you’ll come out with respect and admiration…”
There were a few moments in 37 Seconds where it could have veered towards sentimentality, but it never did. The story doesn’t necessarily go where you think, and in fact, there are some big surprises. It achieves that magic combination of nuance, depth, and having a big heart that makes it both a crowd-pleaser and a favorite of critics.
37 Seconds is as entertaining as it is important. We have a tendency to see people’s physical limitations as a defining characteristic and to put them in a box or even fear them. Well, it is impossible to spend two hours with Mei Kayama and not come out on the other side with extraordinary amounts of empathy. If you go in with pity, you’ll come out with respect and admiration.
37 Seconds screened at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
"…"...that magic combination of nuance, depth, and having a big heart...""