Here I was, ready to dump the word disturbing onto the same trash heap of all-but-meaningless words where it’ll be in good company with terms like genius. Does it mean anything to call a movie disturbing anymore, when it feels like half the movies out there vying for our attention are allegedly designed to make us uncomfortable? Well, it sure does when you come across the real thing — a movie that really does make you deeply uncomfortable, that refreshes the parts other films have not yet reached.
Late Bloomer made me squirm, but in a good way. It uses the form of a psychological thriller to deal with a subject that until now has generally only been tap-danced around via feel-good TV movies: the sense of powerlessness felt by the disabled. It’s also not a cheap inversion of values — in other words, it’s not about someone who makes people with disabilities all look like crazy monsters. It’s about the pain and frustration of being a perennial outsider, about having no way in because there’s simply no place for you to go. The format of the film, the twisted-thriller trappings, are there to allow us to feel all the more for the guy.
Sumida, handicapped but nobody’s fool all the same, struggles as best he can
to find a place where there is a measure of acceptance for him without strings attached.
His name’s Sumida, and since he’s played by an actor named Masakiyo Sumida, we are allowed to believe that he is putting more than a little of himself into this role. He’s a scrawny-faced man who can only speak with the aid of a horribly primitive voice synthesizer and can only get about in a motorized wheelchair. He has a job, sort of, where he works as a caretaker for others with different disabilities, so he’s clearly not mentally retarded. He’s just not been welcomed into anyone else’s life in particular, not even the lives of the other handicapped folks he supervises. For want of company he has an array of hobbies, but none of them satisfy: he chats on the Internet, he collects gashapon figurines, he watches hardcore porn. And when all else fails, he drinks. He drinks a lot.
He does have a few friends, come to think of it. There’s his buddy Také, a DJ and electronic musician, who brings Sumida along with him to his concerts (the scene where Sumida goes wild in his wheelchair at the show is a scream) and doesn’t treat him like an idiot or a “cripple”, at least not most of the time. There’s a mutual sense of respect, but then there are times when Sumida hits the bottle a little too hard, and Také sighs and is forced to fall back into the role of the Pig Parent. It’s not that Také is taking the wrong approach; it’s that Sumida’s needs are clearly far larger than what a casual friendship can provide, and the bottle doesn’t lecture him back when he cracks it open.
When his defenses are ruined by having his affection thrown back in his face,
his life — and the audience’s expectations — are thrown for a loop.
One day Sumida gets a new caretaker, a college-aged girl named Nobuko who’s taken an interest in him as part of something she’s doing for class. Sumida likes her — really likes her — and she quite correctly realizes that she, too, might not be able to give him everything he needs. This includes love and sex — two things that shockingly few people want to admit the disabled long for and, yes, deserve (along with the aged, as the movie Too Young to Die so brazenly proved). Things become even more strained when Sumida realizes Nobuko might be seeing Také behind his back, and that’s when he realizes nothing in his life has prepared him for the anguish of being this unwelcome even amongst people he thought he already had an in with.
The first person to mention Late Bloomer to me described it as a visual cousin to films like Tetsuo: the Iron Man. It’s not a totally fair comparison. Yes, both movies are shot in grainy black-and-white and make extensive use of disorienting, fiercely experimental camerawork. But in the end they’re radically unalike: the crazy surface of Tetsuo WAS the film (hey, it worked), while here it’s just the doorway through which we have to walk to feel that much more of Sumida’s agony. There are moments when it’s overdone, but it’s never ill-suited to the movie as a whole, and there is a final shot of such length and ambition that it redeems any of the movie’s earlier miscalculations of style.
The movie’s confrontational style isn’t a substitute for the real emotional
power of this story: it’s an accelerator for it.
The most striking thing about the film — and there is no way for me to say this without sounding facile, so I’ll just dive right in — is the fact that it is from and set in Japan, a country that is not known for having the most accommodating view of outsiders. Not even the “outsiders” that are their own people, and the worst part (if the movie’s view is accurate) is how quiet and unassuming the rejection is. You don’t get doors slammed in your face. You just sort of cease to exist in their eyes. That’s not something Sumida is about to stand for. No reason he should. But oh boy, the lengths he goes to fight back.