It’s tough being a kid. You have no control over anything and everyone always insists they know best, dismissing resistance as childish rebellion. Yura, the hero of Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い, Boku wa Jesus-sama ga Kirai), has things harder than most as his peaceful days are disrupted by the abrupt announcement that the family will be moving from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo to the sleepy Nakanojo where he doesn’t even get his own room and has to share with grandma! To make matters worse, his new school is going to be a little “different” in that it’s a religious institution.
Yura’s (Yura Sato) family are not themselves Catholic and so the choice of a religious school adds an additional layer of displacement to his already irritated sense of alienation. Bored and lonely, even more of an outcast than solely being the new kid in town as a confused non-Christian suddenly dropped into an unfamiliar environment, Yura prays for a friend to make his days less dull and subsequently gains the constant companionship of a tiny Jesus (Chad Mullane) who follows him around and occasionally grants wishes. Eventually, Tiny Jesus gifts him a real friend in the form of Kazuma (Riki Okuma) – one of the most popular kids in school and a star footballer. Tragedy, however, lingers on the horizon leading to Yura to reconsider his relationship with Tiny Jesus who seems to have betrayed him in granting his trivial wishes only to break his heart.
In fact, the film’s Japanese title translates to the more provocative “I hate Jesus” which might give more of an indication of the film’s final destination as Yura first flirts with and then rejects the religiosity of his new environment. Confused by the zeal with which his classmates seem to run off mass and embarrassed that he doesn’t have a bible or hymnbook to join in, he nevertheless goes along with his teacher’s constant prayer meetings. Through the offices of Tiny Jesus, he comes to associate the power of prayer with asking and receiving. He asks Tiny Jesus for money, and suddenly his grandma comes up with 1000 yen, he asks for a friend and finds one, but just as he’s starting to have faith in his possibly imaginary friend doubt enters his mind. What is Tiny Jesus up to, and why won’t he help when it really matters?
Suddenly angry and resentful, Yura rejects his teacher’s kind yet insensitive attempts to comfort him with the affirmation that all that praying turned out to be completely pointless. Despite not being a Christian and only being a small boy, he is suddenly asked to give a eulogy for someone important to him that he has just lost. The adults might think this is a nice gesture, one that will bring a kind of closure while honouring the memory of the deceased, but it’s also a big ask for a child facing not only loss and grief on an intense scale for the first time but also trying to process his complicated relationship with a religion which is not his. Thoroughly fed up with Tiny Jesus, Yura brings his fist down on the good book as if to crush the false promise of misplaced faith in accepting that there are no real miracles and sometimes no matter how hard you ask your wish will not be granted.
Yura’s disillusionment with religion is swift as he realises you cannot get what you want merely by asking for it. He feels betrayed, not only by Tiny Jesus, but the entire religious institution which led him to believe he could change the world around him through prayer and positivity. Nevertheless, his disappointment does at least begin to bring him some clarity which, ironically, helps him to accept his new surroundings through bonding with grandma and coming to feel at home with his family even if his new environment is likely to be one tinged with sadness as he remembers better times before Tiny Jesus ruined everything. Whimsical if perhaps slight, Okuyama’s debut provides a rare window into Japan’s minority Christian culture as it celebrates Christmas in the Western fashion and seemingly exists in its own tiny little bubble, but subverts its religious themes to explore childhood existential angst as its adolescent hero is forced to deal with loss at a young age and discovers that there is no magic cure for death or eternal life (on Earth at least) for those who believe, only the cold reality of grief and bittersweet memories of happier times.
Original trailer (no subtitles)