Jesus (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A simple but haunting coming-of-age drama

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Japanese film “Jesus” is a simple but haunting coming-of-age drama to be admired for not only its sensitive coming-of-age tale but also its thoughtful handling of its religious subjects. While it is often a little playful as observing how its innocent young hero becomes more serious about his religious belief, the movie seldom feels silly or mawkish in its detached but empathetic attitude, and that is why we come to observe his drama with more care and attention during its somber but undeniably powerful last act.

During its 20-minute prologue, the movie succinctly establishes a big environment change experienced by Yura (Yura Satô), a young boy who happens to move to some rural region along with his parents. While they live in a cozy house belonging to his grandmother, he still feels awkward, and his awkwardness is more apparent when he is later introduced to his new classmates at a local Christian school.

As going through the daily routines along with his schoolmates at this Christian school, Yura comes to know a bit about Christianity, and he soon becomes very serious about what he and others at the school are supposed to believe. As a matter of fact, he begins to see the vision of Jesus appearing as a tiny figure, and his nascent Christian belief is gradually developed further as his several prayers to Jesus are answered sooner than expected.

During one of these prayers of his, Yura asks for a new friend to hang around with, and then he accidentally comes across Kazuma (Riki Ôkuma), who is incidentally one of his classmates. As spending more time together, they become friendlier to each other, and there is a lovely moment when they go outside during one night for watching the meteor shower in sky. They do not expect much at first, but then Yura prays to Jesus, and then, what do you know, they soon behold the sky filled with falling meteors.

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As Christmas comes, Yura suggests that they should go together to a cabin owned by Kazuma’s mother, and they subsequently go to that cabin along with her. Although the cabin does not look that good on the surface, its interior is warm and bright enough for their Christmas dinner, and we later get an ambiguous moment which implies that Yura’s occasional vision of Jesus may be also shared with his best friend.

While leisurely gliding from one episodic moment to another, the movie maintains well its naturalistic mood with the sense of nostalgia, and I was not surprised to learn later that the movie is inspired by the childhood memories of director/writer/editor/cinematographer Hiroshi Okuyama. Like his young hero, Okuyama once attended a Christian school during his childhood years, and he did a very good job of conveying to us how a young innocent mind can be impressed a lot by religious elements. I was amused as watching several brief but humorous scenes where Yura spends some free time along with Jesus, and that somehow took me back to when I used to attend an American Christian meeting along with several local kids around 25 years ago. I must confess that I was not as serious as Yura during that time, but I surely tried hard in singing those English hymns at least, and that old memory still amuses me a lot.

And the movie also distinguishes itself with its unusually austere visual approach. Shot in 1.33:1 ratio, the movie often evokes the texture of classic filmmaking via a number of static but gorgeous shots, and its calm, patient observation during many long-take scenes induces more thoughts and reflections on what is happening below its seemingly calm surface. With its right balance of unadulterated innocence and considerate restraint, the movie often shines with plain but sublime beauty to linger on our mind, and I particularly like a brief poetic moment involved with one certain animal in the story.

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Because the movie is released as “I Dislike Jesus” in South Korea, I sensed in advance that something unpleasant would happen sooner or later, and all I can tell you is that I admire how the movie deftly handles a sudden narrative turn later in the story. While our young hero accordingly struggles with his little crisis of faith, the movie thankfully does not resort to any cheap sentimentality, and we are not surprised when Yura makes a very decisive personal action around the end of the story.

The movie is also supported well by the unadorned acting from its two young main performers. While Yura Satô ably functions as the heart and soul of the movie, Riki Ôkuma effectively complements his co-performer, and their effortless interactions on the screen surely show us that Okuyama is a talented filmmaker who knows how to handle child performers as well as, say, Hirokazu Kore-eda, who is, not so surprisingly, one of notable admirers of the film.

In conclusion, “Jesus” is a small but exceptional personal piece of work, and Okuyama surely made an impressive debut on the whole while also establishing himself as another interesting Japanese filmmaker to watch. Considering that it has been shown in a very few countries since it was released in Japan in this May, it really needs to be seen by more audiences in my trivial opinion, and I guarantee you that you will have a fairly engaging time with it.

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