I was dressed in my Sunday best for my first communion. I dutifully walked up to the priest who muttered “the body of Christ” as he placed a round white wafer on my tongue. The wafer became sticky and got stuck on the roof of my mouth. It tasted like the adhesive you lick on envelopes. It dissolved into a paste which I couldn’t bring myself to swallow. I was disappointed by how bland it was. I moved to the next station where congregators were offered sips of wine from a silver chalice by a man who uttered “the blood of Christ” with each sip.
As I waited for my turn, I looked up at the statue of Jesus on the cross hanging on the wall — his thorned head and nailed hands dripping with blood — and I imagined what his blood would taste like, which made my stomach turn a little. The man with the chalice wiped the rim with a white cloth after every sip. The cloth and the blood of Christ must sanitise the germs and viruses, right? The woman in front of me had a phlegmy cough which made my stomach turn a little more.
Then it was my turn. I took a tiny sip because the gluey wafer was still in my mouth and I planned to spit it all out later but the taste of the wine was so sharp and rancid that I involuntarily swallowed the whole thing. And then it happened. Projectile vomit. The splatter echoed throughout the church. I decorated the altar green. The priest and the congregation looked at me like I’d just given birth to a demon on the chancel.
That last part didn’t actually happen. My first communion was dull and uneventful. This vivid daydream was a product of my imagination. I had many daydreams like this in church, perhaps as a coping mechanism to boredom but also because the strange rituals and bible stories ignited my fantasies and anxieties. I remember refusing to go to mass one Sunday because I stole a toy car from a neighbour and worried that I would burst into flames when I passed the threshold.
I remembered these memories as I watched Hiroshi Okuyama’s Jesus, recalling a time when my perception of religion as a pre-adolescent triggered flights of fancy, mainly fuelled by the Bible itself. Some kids had Tolkien, others had Narnia; I had the Old and New Testament. The Bible was my epic fantasy novel filled with stories of women who turned into piles of salt, a man turned weak from a snip of hair and an ark crammed with all the animals in the world.
Okuyama’s directorial debut (who made this film in his early twenties) is the first film I’ve seen that looks at what it is like to experience religion as a child. In a way, that is the only way to experience it. For myself, the Church became a space of fantasy — something separate from the world outside. It was a place where adults and children alike were told fantastical, impossible stories and accepted them because it is written in the Holy Book. It’s a place where I saw adults act – or believe – like children.
The film creates this sense of naivety by focusing solely on the perspective of a nine year-old boy, Yura (Yura Satô). The audiences sees what he sees, whether it be real or imagined. On his first day at his new school, we follow him as he notices things around the classroom he has probably never seen before: a stack of Bibles, a verse written on the blackboard and a statue of Jesus on the cross. We understand that he wasn’t brought up with religion, his confusion evident when the other kids joyously run out of the classroom when they are called to worship. He asks the teacher what going to worship means.
These first few scenes are quiet and solemn – the camera is static and the composition symmetrical and balanced – recalling the atmosphere of an Ingmar Bergman crisis of faith movie. The film’s music is sparse: I don’t recall hearing music other than the hymn they play before mass. It’s a lighter melody than what I used to hear in church, sounding more like the tunes that open Saturday morning children’s programs and the kids don’t sing the lyrics, only standing quietly out of respect as if they were playing the national anthem. There’s an odd contrast to the music and the image but it rings true to my memories of churchgoers singing hymns with lyrics that are meant to rejoice the Lord but sung with boredom and monotony. Okuyama reinforces this seriousness by setting the film in winter – the lighting, the snow and the monochrome costuming makes the film look black-and-white. There’s a feeling of reverence and serenity in these opening scenes, only interrupted by scenes of children playing outside.
It makes me remember Sunday mass when I was whisked away in the middle of the service to go to Sunday school with other kids, where we played games like ‘Simon Says’ (they called it ‘Jesus Says’), drew pictures of Noah’s Ark and were fed cookies and juice. As we headed out, I felt sorry for the adults we left behind who had to endure a dull sermon, or if the priest is in a bad mood, a chastising.
Unlike my daydreams during communion and mass, in Okuyama’s film something fantastic happens. During mass, Yura notices something on the altar: a tiny man with long hair in a white robe, frantically waving for his attention: a mini Jesus has risen and no one else can see him but him. Is this a product of his imagination or is it a holy miracle? Moving from a sombre tone to something utterly bizarre like a Sion Sono creation, Okuyama delicately balances these contrasting tones, oscillating between solemnity and surreality. The scene is even followed up by a late title card with the warped, chipmunk sounds of a church choir that alters the quiet atmosphere that preceded it.
In doing so, the director captures the double-edged reality of faith: to accept the outlandish with all seriousness. Yura doesn’t make a big deal about his new holy companion: His Jesus looks and behaves in a way that Yura thinks he should behave – playful and a bit goofy; Okuyama visualises the very personal ways in which a person of religion may imagine their god. This Mini-Jesus appears to Yura and personally sees that his prayers are answered, like a genie with unlimited wishes. Played by Tokyo-based Australian comedian, Chad Mullane – this Jesus who plays with rubber ducks in baths and sumo wrestles with toys, grants him with bountiful gifts: a lost inheritance from his late grandfather; a friend in the form of a popular kid at school. It’s a mini-Jesus that’s as absurd as zany, and it works – it contributes to the film’s child-like personality that feels right in the hands of creation of Yuri himself.
Though while the film’s strengths lie in the fact that it stays within Yuri’s mind, it also means that the film doesn’t examine too deeply into the complexities of faith and belief. The cinematography (also Okuyama) operates strictly from Yura’s cautiously inquisitive eyes: it flits and flutters when he gains a new friend – captured like a happy childhood memory. There’s also no fear or reverence when Jesus appears – it’s instead only given a reaction of bewildered delight. It helps that Jesus appears much smaller than Yura; the deity is depicted as subservient to the child. This leaves weightier questions of religion hanging in the air – the film never quite delves deeper into the darker, more serious themes that Bergman’s films display (Through A Glass Darkly (1961) or Winter Light (1963)) as they examine belief through the experiences of adults — namely suicide, psychosis and war.
But that doesn’t mean Okuyama’s film doesn’t hold the same power. Its quirky use of Jesus as a genie-like entity masks an unexpected gravity that doesn’t reveal itself until the final act. By locating the religious experience within the imaginative world of a child, it says something new and interesting about the nature of faith. Faith is believing the unprovable. And in a way, religion allows adults to be like children again – to believe in the impossible and to let the imagination soothe the harsh and sometimes unbearable realities of the world.
Jesus will be playing on Fri 14 June and Sat 15 June 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Visit the SFF website for more info.
Jesue Valle is a design graduate from the University of Technology, Sydney. He created the Instagram account Cineshots and cineshotsblog.com where he writes reviews on new releases and occasionally, some classic films.