Late Bloomer (Osoi Hito)
Director/Screenplay – Go Shibata, Concept – Satoshi Naka, Teraushi Naruhito & Go Shibata, Producer – Toshiki Shima, Photography (b&w) – Masaaki Takakura, Music – World’s End Girlfriend. Production Company – Shima Films
Masakiyo Sumida (Masakiyo Sumida), Mari Torii (Nobuko Toriyama), Naozo Hotta (Take), Sumiko Shirai (Aya), Toshihisa Fukunaga (Fukunaga)
Masayiko Sumida suffers from severe motor disability, which forces him to travel about in a motorized wheelchair and communicate with the use of an electronic text-to-sound device. He enjoys drinking beer, watching porn and attending performances by his caregiver Take’s punk band. College student Nobuko Toriyama requests to come and work as an aide for him. Sumida and Nobuko become good friends but he confesses to his disabled best friend Fukunaga that he has fallen in love with her. However, Take also starts to show an interest in Nobuko. Sumida then conspires to drug Take and then contrive his drowning in the bath. After Sumida’s intentions become creepily sexual, Nobuko leaves and returns home to Okinawa. Her roommate Aya steps in to befriend and help Sumida, videotaping everything he does. Sumida then starts to go out in the streets in his wheelchair to kills whoever he comes across.
Late Bloomer is an indie film from novice Japanese director Go Shibata. Although not widely seen in Japan, it gained a considerable word of mouth and became a perverse hit at international festivals. It was finally granted an English-language dvd release in 2009. Go Shibata subsequently went onto make the Coming of Age drama Aozora Ponchi (2008) and the incomprehensible urban fantasy Doman Seman (2009). His subsequent work has all been in documentaries.
The basic premise of the film – a physically disabled man in a wheelchair becomes a serial killer – pushes Late Bloomer into a taboo area from the get-go. The surprise that the dvd extras reveals is that Masakiyo Sumida and his best friend Toshihisa Fukunaga are genuine handicapped people (in fact Sumida is a social worker for the handicapped). This puts Late Bloomer in the same territory that Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) exists in – of seeing a horror film about people with physical disabilities and deformities, which are not the result of makeup effects but the real thing. Somehow knowing that what one is seeing on the screen is merely a performance being put on by an actor or a makeup appliance gives a film a level of safety for an audience; the fact that it is not immediately places Late Bloomer into a much more uncomfortable area. Equally, Late Bloomer despatches all politically correct assumptions that disabled people should always be treated with sympathy and portrayed in a positive light. Considering how the gay community became highly offended by the portrayal of gay serial killers in films like Cruising (1980) and Basic Instinct (1992), had Late Bloomer a much higher profile international you could imagine the handicapped community becoming equally outraged. You can guarantee that Late Bloomer will be one Japanese horror film that will not be picked up for US remake.
There is also a considerable blurring of the line given the way that Late Bloomer was made. On the dvd interview, Go Shibata says that he turned down offers from production companies to make the film using a non-handicapped actor to portray the central role: “The point of the film is that a handicapped person plays a handicapped person on the screen and turns out to be a murderer,” he says. Both Sumida and Fukunaga play characters that have the same names that they do on screen, which gives the film an even thinner line between fiction and reality. Moreover, Go Shibata and his crew used Masakiyo Sumida’s home as Sumida’s house in the film and worked as his caregivers over a four-year period between 2000 and 2004, organically building the film out around their day-to-day experiences.
One should stress is that Late Bloomer is not an exploitation film, nor one that approaches Masakiyo Sumida’s condition without a considerable degree of sympathy. We see Masakiyo Sumida engaged in activities that we would not normally think of a handicapped person doing – getting drunk, going dancing at punk band gigs, watching porn – but there is no condemnation of these activities or regarding them as evidence of Sumida’s mental unbalance, merely they are shown as being part of his everyday life. It is something that is surely designed to shake up any assumption we might have this is going to be another wistful and sensitive Disease of the Week tv movie about someone’s condition.
Go Shibata has made a point of shooting in black-and-white and with handheld camerawork. This gives Late Bloomer a ragged rawness. Within the opening moments, we see Masakiyo Sumida at the gig dancing to Naozo Hotta’s punk band in his wheelchair in a maddened stroboscopic frenzy, while the scenes where Sumida gets drunk come in a blur of undercranked point-of-view shots. It is clear that Go Shibata has taken more than a leaf or two from Shinya Tsukamoto’s guerrilla filmmaking techniques in Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989), which seemed to be shot in an insane frenzy of ragged energy. The killing scenes are shot in a fractured, highly stylized way full of freeze frames where Shibata throws in over-the-top gushes of arterial spray, all accompanied by deranged music that sounds like industrial noise on the soundtrack.
Of course, when Late Bloomer moves over to the scenes in the latter half with Masakiyo Sumida as a serial killer, it becomes intensely captivating. There is something highly disturbing to Sumida’s Stephen Hawking voicebox mechanically squawking out phrases like “I will kill you” and “I will attack you” or he faxing Mari Torii a message “Please give me just one fuck.” Not to mention him heading to the concert with guns in the back of his wheelchair (an aspect that is never adequately explained) and then frenziedly slamming the wheelchair into the wall of the concert hall in frustration. Masakiyo Sumida gives a great performance in the central role. Behind his twisted (cerebral palsy induced?) movements and robotic voicebox, he evinces a great pain and sympathy. Just the shifty looks we see through his thick glasses when Naozo Hotta’s back is turned make for some great acting. There is something disturbing to the way that we see his twisted body pumping iron and training to go out killing.