Jesus (僕はイエス様が嫌い, Hiroshi Okuyama, 2018)

Jesus posterIt’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. 


Jesus was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Yoji Yamada, 2016)

what-a-wonderful-familyProlific as he is, veteran director Yoji Yamada (or perhaps his frequent screenwriter in recent years Emiko Hiramatsu) clearly takes pleasure in selecting film titles but What a Wonderful Family! (家族はつらいよ, Kazoku wa Tsurai yo) takes things one step further by referencing Yamada’s own long running film series Otoko wa Tsurai yo (better known as Tora-san). Stepping back into the realms of comedy, Yamada brings a little of that Tora-san warmth with him for a wry look at the contemporary Japanese family with all of its classic and universal aspects both good and bad even as it finds itself undergoing number of social changes.

Once upon a time it was normal for the entire family clan to live together, sons bring their wives to their father’s house, become fathers and then grandfathers themselves passing the property on their eldest when they go. After the war everything changed, the return to prosperity brought about a greater need for mobility as well as increasing desire for privacy and individual freedom which saw the domestic environment shrinking.

The Hiratas still live the old way with “difficult” family patriarch Shuzo (Isao Hashizume) nominally in the lead but spending his retirement in the local bar flirting with the mama-san, Kayo (Jun Fubuki), who is gracious, but extremely skilled in her work which often involves deflecting the attentions of the clientele. His long suffering wife, Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), eases her boredom with classes at the local community centre while the wife of eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), has taken taken over the running of the household whilst also taking care of her two sons. The house is also still home to sensitive youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki), and a point of refuge for daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima), during her inevitable fights with mild mannered husband Taizo (Shozo Hayashiya).

When Shuzo can’t really be bothered with his wife’s birthday, he asks her what she’d like as a present – as long as it’s not too expensive, he’s not made of money after all. That’s no problem she says, what I want only costs 450 yen. Shuzo’s confusion gives way to shock as he realises the bit of paper he’s just been handed is a petition for divorce….

Tomiko’s reasoning is sound, the position she’s been occupying for the last forty years is, effectively, a job. Now that the children are grown and another woman has taken over the domestic responsibilities, Tomiko wants to retire and enjoy some well earned freedom at last. The decision sends the entire family into a spiralling existential crisis as they contemplate this unexpected development and what it could mean for their previously ordinary way of life.

It would be nice to think men like Shuzo are a dying breed, so gruff and aggressive that his own daughter-in-law almost hangs up on him thinking he’s an “ore ore” scammer. Having worked hard for his family throughout his life, he feels a tremendous sense of entitlement in playing the king of his own domain. Tomiko, by side all these years putting up with his rudeness, selfishness, and inconsiderate behaviour is thoroughly sick of being taken for granted and unfavourably compared to a bar hostess whose job it is to stroke her husband’s ego.

More challenges to the domestic set up occur when youngest son Shota, still living at home into his 30s, decides to move out and get married. The polar opposite of his brash father, Shota has often been the mediator between different family factions which might well have gone to war and destroyed the household long before now were it not for his calming influence. A marriage would usually be a cause for celebration but Shota has picked exactly the wrong time to introduce his lovely new fiancée, Noriko (Yu Aoi), to the family right in the middle of this extended moment of crisis.

Divorce is still a taboo subject in Japan carrying its own degree of stigma whatever the circumstances which makes Tomiko’s sudden bid for individualistic freedom all the more difficult to understand for her family. This is thrown into sharp relief when Tomiko begins enquiring about Noriko’s family background and discovers she is actually the child of divorced parents only to have a momentary flash of distaste or perhaps mild disapproval before getting over it and trying to make her son’s future wife feel welcome even in this quite tense domestic environment. Disconnected from her own family, being suddenly thrown into the deep end with the boisterous and perhaps too closely involved Hiratas might be a little overwhelming for Hirata-in-waiting Noriko but luckily she takes to it well enough and perhaps finds the liberated frustrations of the large family unit a warm rather than intimidating experience.

It is, indeed, hard being a family. Total honesty is neither possible nor advisable and harmony is largely born of mutual compromise but the essential thing is understanding – both of everyone else’s feelings and of everyone’s unique places within the familial system. Like any good Japanese family drama things have to change so that everything can stay the same, and there’s a poignant moment towards the end where we observe the large number of vacant family homes in the neighbourhood where the elderly owners have either died or moved into residential care facilities while their children and grandchildren founded homes of their own. At the end of the day all anyone wants is a degree recognition as an individual rather than as an embodiment of a concept and if certain people are able to swallow their pride, there might still be hope for the old ways yet.


HK Trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)