By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Please set your volume high,” urges Japanese director Go Shibata in his introduction for the DVD release of his second feature film, “Late Bloomer.”
“Please listen, and feel the movie.” A fan of both film and music, Shibata shows a keen feel for rhythms when it comes to movies. He effectively shows the contrast between characters who normally move and speak with those who can’t.
“Late Bloomer” stars a disabled man, Masakiyo Sumida (playing a character by the same name). Sumida-san, as he is called by the other characters, grins and drools through his thick whiskers. His limbs twist and shake.
He can only walk a few feet at a time. He travels around on a scooter. He communicates through a speech machine. A simple sentence takes him two or three minutes to relay.
Sumida also defies the viewer’s expectations of him. For fun, he gets drunk with his shaved-head caregiver, Take (Naozo Horita). He keeps a stash of porn videos. Take drives him to punk rock shows. Despite his handicaps, he enjoys life.
However, Sumida can never go far from home. Though Japan provides better public access for the disabled than it once did, it still has a lot of room for improvement.
In an interview, director Shibata admits that the average Japanese citizen does not have “much chance of meeting” a person with a disability.
“Late Bloomer” notes this, although the film never preaches it either. It wisely focuses on people.
Sumida has a second caregiver, an earnest college student named Nobuko (Mari Torii). She helps to take some of the stress off Take in taking care of Sumida, but her casual attitude only reminds Sumida of everything he’s missing. He becomes envious of their mobility and the way they can easily communicate.
Sumida eventually confronts them. He speaks his mind through his machine. However, the caregivers ignore him and take his words as a joke. Through clever camera work, the viewer can feel Sumida’s loneliness and mounting frustration.
In the end, Sumida takes action through his damaged body. I’ll let you find out what that involves. After he finally shows everyone what he’s really like, nothing will remain the same.
Shibata is honest about the difficulty of filming “Late Bloomer.” Many people advised him to make his story fit into a more mainstream genre. A marketing expert told him to cast an able-bodied actor for the role of Sumida. Many Japanese audiences presumably didn’t want to see a real disabled man.
But Shibata knew he had the right actor. He builds his films around his actors because he feels that no one else can carry the story in the proper way.
No one in his cast had any prior experience in acting, yet Shibata kept his cameras running continuously and told his cast to act “90 percent natural.” He puts the best results together in his editing room.
Shibata and Horita said looking after actor Sumida was not an easy task. Shibata noted that the distinction between “caregiver” and “filmmaker” was blurred as filming went on.
Sumida gets his own interview segment on the DVD. With his whiskers shaved, his face looks soft and cheerful. He does speak through the same machine seen in the film, and he does take a few minutes to reply.
When asked why he accepted Shibata’s offer to star in a film, he answered, “I’m an easygoing man.” Then he flashed a huge grin.
Horita said he and Sumida are still friends.
The film was released in theaters in 2004. Shibata said the project allowed him to become a better person. It’s sweet that relationships formed on a set can grow and flourish as years pass.
“Late Bloomer” should challenge viewers for years to come. (end)
“Late Bloomer” is available on DVD through Tidepoint Pictures. Visit www.tidepoint.com or your local video store.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.