Going on to win numerous other awards, Hikari’s film about a young artist with cerebral palsy who escapes an oppressive home life by illustrating erotic manga, has proven a surprise audience-pleaser.
Today it showcases in the Japan Now section at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival, proving something of a triumphant homecoming for the Japanese director who has lived in the US for the past 20 years.
Studying filmmaking at USC with Ryan Coogler, Hikari’s bold feature debut has already put her in demand with studios both in Japan and Hollywood.
Her unusual coming-of-age story takes virginal heroine Yuma on a mission to gain sexual experience after her editor rejects her work as unconvincing. Following a disastrous encounter in a love hotel, she befriends Mai and Toshiya, leading her on an unexpected journey.
Meeting with Hikari in Tokyo, she tells us about the inspiration for her film, after a high school friend became paralyzed when he was 19.
Going on to co-produce 2017 documentary Roll with Me about a newly-sober paraplegic who attempts to save his gang-banger nephew’s life by bringing him on a 3,000-mile wheelchair trek across the US, she would meet handicapped actors who spoke candidly to her about the impact of disability on sexuality.
“I always envisioned this as a male in the lead role and had completed a script about a friendship between two men,” says Osaka-born Hikari whose real name is Mitsuyo Miyazaki.
But after meeting with a woman who had provided inspiration for 2012 film The Sessions starring John Hawkes and Helen Hunt – about a man in an iron lung who wishes to lose his virginity – she decided to flip the gender. “I was really inspired by the fact that women who are paralyzed can potentially still give birth and even have orgasms,” she says.
“So, then I totally re-wrote my original script, so it was more about a young woman trying to find where she belongs in society. She asks herself: ‘I know I’m a human. But where do I stand in terms of sexuality if I’ve never had sex or a relationship?’”
Refusing to cast an able-bodied person in the lead role, she says, “I wrote a script about a girl in a wheelchair – so I only met with girls in wheelchairs. Hollywood typically wants to see beautiful famous actors pretending to be handicapped. But I’m an independent filmmaker so I don’t have to play that game.
“So, it was very important for me to work with people we don’t usually see on screen. There’s a huge difference between a real girl in a wheelchair and an actor who is faking it.”
Auditioning more than 50 actresses with disabilities throughout Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya for the lead role of Yuma, Mei Kayama was the last actress she saw. “Mei was perfect. I really fell in love with her innocence. Many of the other actresses I saw were already married so that wasn’t ideal for what I was trying to convey with Yuma.”
Despite the fact that she is based in Los Angeles, Hikari always wanted to set 37 Seconds in Tokyo. “This town is crazy busy and so difficult for people with disabilities. I don’t feel like there’s many people here who want to help people, so that provided more obstacles for Yuma.”
Incensed when she read about how a blind high school girl was jump-kicked by an angry passenger at a station in Japan’s Saitama Prefecture five years ago, she was even more determined to set her film in Tokyo.
“I think there’s a big issue of intolerance here, so I wanted my film to make a powerful statement,” she says, pointing to the fact that 37 Seconds is only the third film in the history of Japanese cinema that focuses on the disabled.
“Diversity is so important to me – especially in Japan where they are obsessed with famous people even if they can’t act.”
Holding numerous screenings for people with disabilities, she has been moved by the many stories her audiences have told her afterwards. “I think a lot of people have been inspired, especially people who feel they cannot create their own lives. 37 Seconds is a very hopeful film so it’s been such a positive reaction.”
A performing artist during her high school years in Japan, Hikari went on to study theatre at a Utah university, eager to explore a country very unfamiliar to her own. “I was bullied as a kid in Osaka because I was president of the student body and was so outspoken. I really wanted to escape and live abroad.”
Graduating and moving to LA, she worked on commercials and hip hop music videos for Nas, Eminem and A Tribe Called Quest.
By her late 20s she was enrolled at USC and still stays in touch with former classmate Coogler. “He gives me advice now that I’m following him into this crazy Hollywood world. Same as Ryan, I’ve signed to William Morris and have a manager too.”
37 Seconds has proven a real game-changer and Hikari is in high demand. “I’m developing a love story with Universal based on a graphic novel by a British artist. Also, I’m re-writing a YA script called Eleanor & Park for Brad Pitt’s Plan B and a live action pitch for Disney.”
Changing her name to Hikari several years ago, she explains, “My real name was so long, nobody could remember it. But Hikari means light and I believe in the power of words so whenever people say light or bright energy, I think the universe smiles.”