'Jesus': Film Review | San Sebastian 2018

Courtesy of San Sebastian International Film Festival
Oddball Japanese film presents Christ like we've never seen Him before.

Japanese prodigy Hiroshi Okuyama's debut feature landed one of the biggest cash prizes in world cinema at the Spanish festival.

Somebody up there really likes Hiroshi Okuyama, the 22-year-old Japanese multihyphenate whose daffy graduation project Jesus (Boku Wa Iesu-Sama Ga Kirai) not only premiered in the New Directors competition at the venerable San Sebastian Film Festival but scooped the section's €50,000 ($57,750) prize. Deadpan in its oddball humor while carving out territory somewhere between whimsy and WTF, it presents the screen's third most-filmed character — after Satan and Santa Claus — as we've never seen Him before: the Tom Thumb sized imaginary playmate of an introverted fifth-grader.

Snapped up just before San Sebastian by Japanese behemoth Nikkatsu for a 2019 domestic release — Easter, perhaps? — Jesus will doubtless parlay the lucrative gong into further bookings at festivals looking to spice up their slates with offbeat fare. And although even at 76 minutes Okuyama's debut feels like a padded-out short, the thunderbolt arrival of such a youthful prodigy answers the prayers of Japan-oriented cinephiles seeking successors for established names like Naomi Kawase, Takashi Miike and Hirokazu Kore-eda.

This year's Palme d'Or winner Kore-eda has often focused on kiddies in his movies, and Okuyama — director, writer, editor and cinematographer — likewise seeks to evoke the inner life of his pint-sized protagonist Yura (Yura Sato). A stereotypically quiet and introverted only child, the 9-year-old relocates from Tokyo to the small town of Nakanojo with his mother Eriko (Yuko Kibiki) and father Fumitoshi (Kenichi Akiyama) following the death of his aged grandfather Satoru (Koichi Nihei). They move in with Satoru's widow Fumi (Akko Tadano), and Yura is enrolled at the nearest school, which happens to be a Christian establishment. So far, so boilerplate art movie.

Yura initially struggles to adapt to the devoutness of his classmates (who joyously sprint for the chapel every morning) and the starkness of his snowy, underpopulated new environment — Nakanojo is actually less than a hundred miles from the capital, but is situated in a mountainous district in Honshu's hinterland. He's aided in his acclimatization by kindly teacher Mr. Warita (Ippei Osako), who instructs him in the rudiments of prayer. This activity yields an immediate and most unanticipated consequence when, having previously been briefly visible (to eagle-eyed viewers) during a sermon, Jesus Christ himself — in mute, miniature but hyperactive form — materializes right in front of a startled Yura.

No one else can see this nano-version of the Lord, whose appearance at the 19-minute mark is accompanied by the film's belated title-card. But He keeps lonely Yura company in his idle hours and provides divine if somewhat genie-like help by answering the lad's wishes. Thanks presumably to Jesus' intervention, Yura becomes best pals with his class' most popular kid, sports-mad Kazuma (Riki Okuma), and quickly blossoms into a happy and well-adjusted child.

There's not very much to the story of Jesus, whose plot revolves around a sudden car accident shortly after the halfway mark — one which leaves Kazuma seriously injured and plunges Yura into heretical despair (the original Japanese title translates as "I Hate Mr. Jesus"). Nebulous in its psychological and theological aspects, the film is most effective in the silliest moments of visual humor, with Christ (played by Tokyo-based Aussie comedian Chad Mullane) popping up in most unexpected places — including on the back of a yellow rubber ducky during Yura's bathtime.

Such belly laughs profitably punctuate an otherwise slow-paced, stop-start immersion into the chilly, gray-brown world of Nakanojo and its environs, captured in a drab palette of colors by Okuyama's largely immobile camera (which switches from tripod to handheld for scenes of Yura and Kazuma's outdoor play.) He'll presumably be able to productively collaborate with more experienced and skilled editors and cinematographers on any future big-screen outings. Reports that Okuyama is now working for a leading Tokyo ad agency, however, chime with the impression here that his sensibility may find more rewarding outlets in non-cinematic forms.

Production company: Closing Remarks
Cast: Yura Sato, Riki Okuma, Kazuma Okuma, Yuko Kibiki, Akko Tadano, Kenichi Akiyama, Ippei Osako, Chad Mullane
Director-screenwriter-cinematographer-editor: Hiroshi Okuyama
Producer: Tadashi Yoshino
Composer: Koshi Kishita
Venue: San Sebastian International Film Festival (New Directors)
Sales: Nikkatsu, Tokyo (international@nikkatsu.co.jp)

In Japanese
76 minutes