Late Bloomer is a film which simply defies easy description. It mixes social drama with cyberpunk aesthetics, throwing in a little slasher theme on the side. At it's very core though, it is a film about one man, Sumida Masakiyo. He plays the role of his life, making it difficult for audiences to separate his acting performance from his character, resulting in some very disturbing and intense scenes. Director Shibata didn't miss his one chance to make on hell of an impression with his first film.
Late Bloomer was originally released in 2004 but only found its way to somewhat bigger audiences in 2008 when it was screened at several festivals around the world. It is not difficult to see why this film had a hard time being picked up. Its main character and actor, Sumida Masakiyo, is a physically disabled and somewhat deformed man. His appearance is unforgettable and truly unique, and it's not often a person like this is offered a lead role in a film, playing more or less himself (this is no Dustin Hoffman in the Rain Man thank god). Even less common is the nature of his role. Even though Sumida is physically disabled, he has one hell of a well-functioning mind and likes making the best of life. He is a regular visitor of hardcore punk concerts, loves alcohol and races after every women he sees. Yet his appearance drives people away and keeps them at curiosity distance.
When a new caretaker enters his home Sumida falls for her but sees his best friend and room mate run off with the girl. Even though he fairs well his environment, he fails to belong, driving him to certain madness. The scary part is that Sumida is always hiding behind his everlasting grin. It is very hard to read him as a character, only the context of his actions betray his emotions. His grin turns him into a lovable chap when he's having fun, but makes him damn creepy when he starts messing up. Sumida's performance is really mind blowing, though maybe just a little ironic. The film shows him as a vigorous man, not limited as a person by his disabilities. On the other hand, it is hard to image Sumida playing another role in film ever again, as his appearance is so unique he is immediately entangled with this character. A little bitter maybe, but at least that's how I feel it.
Those of you thinking this makes a good subject for a conventional drama, think again. Shibata takes a very different route with Sumida's story. He splices the film into two separate segments. The core scenes are pretty simple, black and white registrations of Sumida's everyday life. The hand-held technique makes it feel almost like a documentary and adds an ever more human side to Sumida's character. Opposed to those scenes there are some frantically edited experimental breaks, sporting harsh, high contract black and white photography and a trippy, noizy soundtrack. They give the film a weird, outlandish vibe, in heavy contrast with the more realistic scenes. It's this exact schism that might drive audiences even farther away from liking this film, as the subject of the physically or mentally disabled is typically handled with much care, trying to portray them as glorified as can be. Late Bloomer takes a very different road, going for a bold and in you face approach (which in my opinion is ultimately way more effective and way less sentimental).
The soundtrack too deserves a mention, as it contains some very rare and awesome music. Apart from the punk concerts, the score is very electronic-oriented, more so than the usual industrial scores that go with cyberpunk. There are IDM and noize influences mixed with industrial sounds that give the film a very unique edge. Especially the tracks during the opening and ending of the film are gold and work well even outside the context of the film. It would be nice if more films would experiment with these kind of sounds.
In the final half hour the film sees Sumida flipping from good to bad and features some pretty twisted scenes. After having watched the film, its easy to think of Sumida as an actor being exploited for a trash flick featuring a physically disabled main character. But by doing that, I believe that the man is heavily discredited. Late Bloomer is a film that shows a guy who is energetic, witty and well capable of living his life as he wishes. It removes the protective cloak from these people and shows they are capable of more than playing poor victims in some sentimental social drama. For that alone this film is worth watching.
If you like experimental cinema and you're not afraid to see some stereotypes shattered, this film is a definite recommendations. It's a whole new way of applying cyberpunk aesthetics to a film subject, mixing it with a documentary take on one of the most interesting characters I've ever seen in a film. Sumida is the man and Shibata directed him like no other could. I believe this is the film of their lifetime for both, and a very impressive watch to boot.