Director: Hiroshi Okuyama
Cast: Yura Sato, Akko Tadano, Riki Okuma, Yuko Kibiki, Chad Mullane
Length: 76 minutes
Jesus, a Japanese-language film directed by 22-year-old Hiroshi Okuyama, combines the two most naturally vulnerable gazes of modern coming-of-age cinema – kids and displacement – to examine the troublingly adult concept of devout religion. It begins like most underdog children’s classics do. A sullen pre-teenager named Yura is forced to move homes – to tiny Nakanojo from bustling Tokyo – after his old grandmother is widowed. The theme is familiar: the boy goes from big-city introvert to small-town outcast before he says his first word on screen. His parents worry: Will he make friends? Will he suppress the uneasiness of displacement and rebel later? Will he speak at all?
He enrolls at a Christian institution, not the “normal” public school he is used to. His new classmates joyously sprint to the prayer hall and recite verses from the Bible as if it were their favourite pop songs. Yura observes, poker-faced, not just wondering why any kid would do these things willingly but also why they’re all so happy. So full of life. Unlike him. When a miniature Jesus – otherwise a playful genie in “normal” movies – appears to heed his first prayer, Yura slowly gets his answers. And even more questions. He wishes for a friend, and suddenly the most popular boy in class, Kazuma, becomes his best friend. He asks for money, and he magically inherits a small sum from his late grandfather. Soon, darker events (including an accident) start to unfurl, prompting us to imagine the brand of prayers Yura has begun to indulge in. The film, with its wry physicality and quiet sense of provocation, makes it imperative for us to wonder: For a child, is there any difference at all between “asking” and “praying”? For an adult, is there any difference between “praying” and “worshipping”? In context of Christianity, is there any difference between the desires of children and the hope of adults?
The plot of Jesus might sound absurd, but there seems to be a mental method to its cheeky madness. It isn’t enough that the film is based on a fifth grader; it’s more important that the fifth-grader is in the most testing phase of his young existence. It’s natural for a child to catch hold of the first sign of emotional escapism in an alien environment. For some, it might be drugs, bad company or the movies. For those like Yura, it is religion – the landscape is snowy and bleak, prompting any sane-minded city kid to seek divine intervention. Or a warm new toy. Often, there’s little to distinguish between the two. That a pint-sized Jesus Christ literally becomes his playmate, of course, gives us a fair idea of how vividly a director closer to Yura’s age feels for his situation as compared to the nostalgic, sentimentally drenched gazes of older storytellers.
The film, with its wry physicality and quiet sense of provocation, makes it imperative for us to wonder: For a child, is there any difference at all between “asking” and “praying”?
Hiroshi Okuyama understands, more freshly than others, that children always have a choice – even when they don’t know it. Yura opts for a path he sees as most common. But his impressionable brain’s proverbial embrace of distraction – Jesus is his imaginary friend, and even his most unlikely wishes are fulfilled – overlaps with the cultural shock of displacement to help him recognize the fundamental flaws of blind faith. After all, there is nothing like a fertile nine-year-old mind to illustrate the crucial difference between fantasy and fanaticism. The 1:1 aspect ratio and long static shots are decisions that presumably service the intention of a distant God-like eye – one that is always watching, judging, without quite deviating from the boy’s internal being.
Another thing that Okuyama manages, through Jesus, is the re-definition of the rational-hero narrative. Most of the defiant child protagonists in cinema are depicted as disgruntled products of their parents’ nutty Bible-worshipping ways. Films as recent as The Miseducation of Cameron Post and Boy Erased automatically begin with practical-minded and frustrated young protagonists who lash out at the bigoted older generation. Their attitude, by default, is already heroic. With Yura, we get a sense of how they might have attained this original thought process in the first place. And we go one better: With Yura, we see an individuality that isn’t born out of forceful parenting. Jesus, for him, is not a derived sign of identity. Their relationship is just another childhood phase; it is not his cross to bear.