Jesus (Japan, 2018) [JAPAN CUTS 2019]

Made during his senior year at Aoyama Gakuin University, Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus clocks in at just under seventy-five minutes. But his debut is an emotionally and visually piercing work in the way that it seamlessly melds the visceral and abstract processes/concepts of acclimation, growing up, friendship, and religion — all encased in the context of school — through the experiences of nine-year-old Yura Hoshino (Yura Sato) whose family has recently moved to a new city. With this film, whose actual Japanese title translates more pointedly to “I don’t like God,” Okuyama marks quite an exciting arrival to the Japanese cinema scene.

Nearly twenty minutes elapse, though, before I don’t like God appears, following Yura’s sincere prayer to God about making friends at his new school, which is of Christian denomination. Contrary to the film’s title, Yura’s initial set of prayers that occupy the first half of the film are seemingly answered, all of which coalesce in the form of his friendship with Kazuma Okuma (Riki Okuma), the most popular boy in school who also happens to be a bit of a wunderkind when it comes to soccer.

Accordingly, a notable number of symmetrical shots can be found during the first third of the film, as if to denote the order and harmony into which Yura is thrust upon his family’s move from Tokyo to an unnamed but obviously more northern, snow-laced clime to live with his paternal grandmother (Akko Tadano) and attend his new Christian primary school. The whiteness and thickness of snow, in fact, contributes effectively to both the film’s ruminant mood and the vivid simplicity of its visuals.

This simplicity is also occasionally punctured by quick edits of objects that characterise a space/place related to wherever Yura may find himself at any given point. These unexpected quick edits become less anomalous in the face of the non-speaking miniature Jesus figure (Chad Mullane) who appears before Yura or in proximity to him wherever he may be throughout the film, particularly when he is engaged in a personal prayer or in solitary play. Affable, pliant, with a bit of a sense of humour — such as posing as a sumo wrestler for Yura’s faux makeshift sumo wrestling game made of cardboard and paper — is this Jesus (like the film itself), which Yura seems to embrace into his newly established life, in part to help make sense of precisely this different life and space peopled with unknowns and his place in it. Understandably so, as more often than not he is on his own, as his parents (Yuko Kibiki, Kennichi Akiyama) are often just not present in the film; in truth, he spends more quality time with his grandmother than with them outside of mealtimes.

The visual symmetry of shots gradually gives way to handheld camera movement, as Yura begins to acclimate to his new environment and his friendship with the easy-going Kazuma grows. Indeed, the scenes with the two boys and their developing camaraderie constitute some of the film’s most memorable and affecting moments. For instance, when they play the board game Life, the two-shot of them is held for a long take that injects the unfolding scene with a striking documentary quality, in the process capturing the beautiful flow of conversation between them. When Yura spends Christmas holiday with Kazuma and his mother (Rikako Okuma) in their vacation home, a similar documentary quality is present: this time, an affectionately and nostalgically shaky, intimate, and mobile home-movie characteristic, especially when Yura and Kazuma play in the snow.

The film takes a suddenly grim turn, however, in the life of not only Yura but also the entire school community. In this way, the film strongly resists any kind of emotional or religious assurance with regards to the clarity of the way things happen in life, why they happen in the first place, and to whom, from Yura’s perspective. In this context, the gradual disappearance of symmetrical shots become all the more thematically poignant. A final symmetrical shot appears minutes before the film’s end, but its symmetry — and, by association, harmony, order, and clarity — is only fleeting and illusory. The significance of this shot is rendered more acute in that it takes place in the school’s church, which becomes witness to Yura’s incredibly adamant gesture of rejection, dislike, and anger, all swirling into each other, towards prayer and Jesus most explicitly, but also towards life, for lack of a better word. At the same time, the film is in no way an anti-religious tract or rant. If anything, it utilises the concept of religion as but one thing to which one can turn — as well as discard — in life.

The prologue with Yura’s late paternal grandfather poking holes in the shoji screen, which is referenced once in the film proper and a second time in the film’s nostalgic conclusion/epilogue, cements the film’s preoccupations less with religion per se than with time, gain/loss, mystery, and understanding/not understanding what goes on in the world — with the Life board game as a literal playful nod to these same issues.

Jesus is showing at JAPAN CUTS 2019 on July 26.