A shy young boy finds a friend in Jesus in Hiroshi Okuyama’s original debut
Dir/scr: Hiroshi Okuyama. Japan. 2018. 77mins
An introverted 10-year-old relocates with his family from Tokyo to rural Japan, and must adapt to a new school in this decidedly quirky exploration of faith and friendship. Not only must Yura (Yura Sato) negotiate the social demands of a class full of strangers, he must also get to grips with an unfamiliar religion: his new school is a Christian establishment. Fortunately help is at hand in the form of a pint-sized Jesus who appears to Yura whenever he prays. The debut feature from 22-year-old Hiroshi Okuyama, Jesus is a confident and engaging picture; although it does seem a little over-stretched even at its slight running time.
It’s hard to imagine that there are many films out there which show a six-inch-high Messiah astride a rubber duck
Tonally somewhere between the gentle sentiment of a Naomi Kawase film and the wacky, out-there tendencies of Sion Sono, Jesus is a tailor-made festival talking point. It plays in Macao having won Best Director for Okuyama (who has previous experience as a short film and music video director, and also serves as editor and cinematographer here) at San Sebastian earlier in the year – he is the youngest filmmaker to win the prize. A domestic release is scheduled for 2019; elsewhere, arthouse distributors might respond to the film’s offbeat plot and blend of gentle humour and pathos.
And it’s certainly original. It’s hard to imagine that there are many films out there which show a six-inch-high Messiah astride a rubber duck bath toy, or which feature a version of Gloria In Excelsis Deo which sounds as though it was recorded by chipmunks.
Yura is a glum little kid who hides behind a wall of pudding bowl hair and barely registers the fact that his parents are anxiously discussing him while he sitting between them. Following the death of his grandfather, Yura’s parents have relocated to live with his grandmother. It’s an upheaval that has unsettled the boy, but we don’t get a sense that he has left behind a particularly happy or busy social life in Tokyo.
At his new school, Yura is initially bemused by the time scheduled for ‘worship’ each morning. “Is it like assembly?” he asks the teacher. But a moment of kindness from the school’s pastor and a card bearing an illustration of a Christ figure provides a turning point. Yura attempts a spot of solo prayer and is rewarded with his own personal mini-Jesus (played by the physically expressive Australian actor Chad Mullane).
Jesus appears to have the ability to grant wishes, one of which is for Yura to make a friend. Enter cool kid Kazuma (Riki Okuma), the school’s soccer star. With the support of his new friend and his conveniently answered prayers, Yura emerges from his shyness and, for a while at least, seems genuinely happy. But what is faith if it is not tested?
Yura’s Jesus disappears at the same time as the boy’s belief is shaken by a shock accident which severely injures Kazuma. A third act, which deals in tragedy but seems unsure of what it is trying to achieve, is less successful than the lighter toned film which comes before. And the antics of tiny-Jesus are sorely missed, with no resurrection on offer here.
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Producer: Tadashi Yoshino
Editing: Hiroshi Okuyama
Cinematography: Hiroshi Okuyama
Production design: Kaede Fujimoto
Music: Koshi Kishita
Cast: Yura Sato, Riki Okuma, Kazuma Okuma, Yuko Kibiki, Akko Tadano, Kenichi Akiyama, Ippei Osako, Chad Mullane