Gô Shibata’s "Late Bloomer" gives us a very brief, casual introduction for its memorable main character, Masakiyo Sumida, who is physically disabled and first seen seated in his motorized wheelchair while being carefully loaded into a van. Shortly after, his destination is revealed: a loud concert which immerses him and the viewer in a dark cavern of flashing strobe lights and blasting techno music in the vein of Aphex Twin – and the film that follows only further reminds the viewer of the dark and strange music videos of Chris Cunningham.
Despite (or perhaps in spite of) his disability, Sumida maintains a very active social life. His favorite activities include drinking beer and attending the concerts held by his friend and caregiver Take’s punk rock band. Nobuko, a college student, is assigned to be Sumida’s new caregiver as part of her diploma completion, and a friendship quickly develops between the two of them. However, Sumida also experiences a romantic infatuation with her that is soon further complicated when Take starts spending time with Nobuko. Feeling betrayed, Sumida vents his anger through acts of extreme violence, sending him into a truly tragic downward spiral.
It is immediately clear that "Late Bloomer" is so much more than your average slasher or horror flick, and it certainly gives you more to think about besides who the killer’s next victim might be. Sumida’s identity and relationship with others around him completely deserves (if not demands) much thought on the viewer’s part, challenging the usual concept of the faceless movie killer. The film "Late Bloomer" most reminded me of is "Taxi Driver", for both feature main characters who are both complex individuals and clearly outsiders (not to mention the shots and sequences that seem to be quoted almost directly from Martin Scorsese’s film). Both Travis Bickle and Sumida do terrible things, but it would be wrong to outright condemn them as “evil” because of the alienation that they suffer from and the all too familiar feelings of sympathy and unease that they evoke. Like Bickle, Sumida wasn’t born bad; no one ever is. Instead, the circumstances that restrict him cause feelings of frustration, jealousy and, eventually, rage to form and build up until they are released, bringing about destructive consequences.
The big question that "Late Bloomer’s" viewers are sure to ask themselves is this: does the film exploit Sumida’s disability or disabled people in general? After some thought, I’d say the answer is no, because director Shibata takes great care in his portrayal of Sumida as an individual. While the people around him acknowledge his disability, they don’t discriminate against him or treat him condescendingly, instead encouraging his social interaction and friendship with them. However, that isn’t enough to keep Sumida from carrying out his dark deeds which are initiated by his feelings of envy and anger. An indication of his motives and the anguish that fuels them is given at a point in the film when Nobuko asks Sumida a highly personal and inappropriate question regarding his disability. The response he gives through his voice simulator is disturbing, but not entirely unfounded. Ultimately, the tragedy of "Late Bloomer" comes from Sumida’s feelings and his inability to cope with or control them in relation to his condition (as a disabled friend advises him to do), even as others around him continue to accept him for who he is.
"Late Bloomer" was shot in black-and-white using digital video. In a way, this places it alongside Takashi Miike’s "Visitor Q" in that the story both fits the unconventional format and is so compelling that any qualms one may have with the stylistic choice should soon be forgotten. The rough, handheld image lends an intimate perspective of Sumida and often directly relays his point of view. This strategy is specifically used in moments of extreme emotional intensity for him (such as when he gets drunk or commits his murders), causing the film to slow down, speed up and fire elaborately edited jumbles of images at the viewer. Contributing to the stranger qualities of "Late Bloomer" are the unusual, electronic soundscapes of Katsuhiko Maeda’s solo music project World’s End Girlfriend, certifying Shibata’s emphasis on the film’s music in his greeting message on the DVD. Through its style, treatment of its various characters and different take on horror genre conventions, "Late Bloomer" offers a dizzyingly unique viewing experience and much to think about long after its credits have rolled.