Late Bloomer | 遅い人

Released: November 24th, 2004
Director: Gô SHIBATA
Run Time: 83 min

Cast:
Masakiyo SUMIDA
Toshihisa FUKUNAGA
Naozo HOTTA

Tags: 2004, cerebral palsy, death, disability, Go Shibata, handicap, horror, marginalization, Masakiyo Sumida, murder, ostracism, serial killer

The first child ever born in Japan, according to mythology, was abandoned because he was born deformed. This was not an auspicious start for the new nation. Ever since, the disabled person in Japan has been not only considered imperfect, an embodiment of ugliness, but at a deeper socio-spiritual level – and actually if they are born disabled – a sort of curse.1 Gô Shibata’s film flips this idea on its side and brings the question of disability not only to the surface, but raises it above the level of the unimpaired by empowering the lead character of Sumida and following him on a path of representative action.

This fiercely independent film took 5 years to complete and according to Shibata, it was “only after a half a year of shooting that the distance between him and his lead actor Masakyio Sumida started to shorten-and in a sense, that was when the film started to take on its true form”.2 The commitment resulted in a film like no other, sure to leave audiences with questions about what the reality of disability is along with the cultural perceptions towards it.

Style plays a prominent role in the film as one should imagine given the true and severe disability of cerebral palsy Masakyio Sumida suffers from. Thus, style plays a paramount role in capturing the emotions of each moment and conveying the story to the audience. The most prominent examples are the usage of camera position and sound in the film. The first few scenes following a chaotic opening sequence are shot at Sumida’s eye level as we follow his character around the city doing his daily activities. In terms of sound, most of it is recorded naturally with little digitally modified. An example of this is the consistent use of an electronic speech-synthesizer which Sumida uses to speak. This combination of perspective and auditory sense continues through the course of the film and is one of the best usages of either in a film today.

A wonderful example of this is when Shibata films Sumida and his caretaker Take during the course of an evening meal. Sumida and Take are positioned across from each other, table laden with food in between, and both take a long drink of beer at precisely the same time. This is the first moment in the film where we see Sumida’s disability positioned in both a comparative as well as competitive manner against an individual who possesses a body which functions normally. While Take is eating without any problems, Sumida has difficulty picking up any food at all despite his use of a fork. He cannot eat properly as the food is falling from his mouth and utensil while Take is easily consuming everything and talking to Sumida with his mouth full. The scene ends abruptly with this image, leaving the amount of time and effort needed for Sumida to finish his meal up in the air. Shibata’s accomplishment in this sense is the pull of sympathy from the audience by allowing the absorption of Sumida’s disability to a certain degree. This lends itself well to what transpires later in the film.

Sound and lighting soon begin to transform the sympathetic aura of the film into the macabre. As Sumida goes to concerts in his wheelchair, the lighting and sound changes substantially. Sumida is shot from the back going down a dark and smoky alley; people stand to the right and left of him. Soft music creates an ominous sense of approach. Suddenly, the camera jerks, shots moves all over the screen, and sounds become mechanical; Sumida goes berserk in his power-chair; an episode which results in the power failing at the concert. This scene is the first of several designed to show Sumida’s resentfulness towards his disability. Physical disability aside, his mind is fully functional and aware of his predicament. In another dark scene, a storm approaches as Sumida’s body appears sculpted and glistens with sweat during a workout; his facial expressions menacing. At this point, audiences have knowledge of Sumida’s true nature, but the scene serves to reinforce the idea that Sumida is not just a helpless disabled man. Our feelings for Sumida gravitate from sympathy towards the direction of fear.

The two themes of sympathy and fearfulness interlace in a manner that puts the characterization of Sumida into question. Are we supposed to be sympathetic that he is disabled, or fearful of his murderous intent alongside his perfect disguise? It seems Shibata intended to utilize both. The film in this regard, leads to a balanced view of the disabled because it questions the idea of true disability. The character of Sumida, severely disabled in a scientific sense of the word, is able to do things that a disabled person, stereotypically, would never be capable of. The sympathy that Gô Shibata establishes in the film surpasses the feelings of fear. And we are left with a man who although pushed to disaster, is trapped in a very sad existence.

If the film and cultural marginalization are examined together, the character of Sumida becomes more interesting. What is the cultural perception towards someone like Sumida? A person who murders others defies behavioral norms. But what if that person is suffering from severe disability? The capability or even the potential to murder does not come to mind, yet Sumida does so with ease. In this regard, the character of Sumida breaks free from the stereotype of disability and moves onto the other side of the table with those who are not disabled. The film supports this idea during the final scene which contains perhaps the most stylistically elaborate and impressive shot in the entire film. When Sumida is caught by the police, the very wide shot shows many people simultaneously moving forwards and backwards. The majority of these people are congested near Sumida’s residence. However, one individual moves away from the chaos, and it is Sumida’s best friend Fukunaga. As the only other disabled person in the film, Fukunaga’s movement away from Sumida symbolizes Sumida’s escape from the realm of the disabled. A journey that perhaps even surpasses it. Sumida is no longer an ignored burden on society, but the star in the middle of chaos. In this way, Late Bloomer contradicts cultural stereotypes and places Sumida in a position of empowerment. Breaking free from disability and balancing the view of the disabled.

A review of this length does not give the film its due credit. Given the ideas presented by Shibata in this work, hyperanalysis would be difficult to achieve. Late Bloomer deserves not only more than one viewing but much discussion as well.

Production Companies:

Shima Films

Distributors:

Shima Films (2005) (worldwide) (theatrical) (festivals)
Tidepoint Pictures (2008) (USA) (theatrical) (subtitled)
Bone House Asia (2008) (USA) (DVD)
Tidepoint Pictures (2009) (USA) (DVD)
Transformer (2010) (Japan) (DVD)

Technical Specifications:

Color: Black and White
Film negative format (mm/video inches): Video
Cinematographic process: DV
Printed film format: 35 mm

Citations:

1. Henshall, Kenneth G. Dimensions of Japanese Society: Gender, Margins and Mainstream. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, and New York NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
2. Rucka, Nicholas. “Late Bloomer”, Midnight Eye, May 11, 2005, http://www.midnighteye.com/reviews/latebloomer.shtml.