Christianity has never really taken hold in Japan, despite hundreds of years of proselytizing (with a long Edo Period interruption for persecution). In his novel, “Silence,” Catholic author Shusaku Endo famously described the country as a “swamp” where the sapling of the Christian faith is doomed to rot.

Japanese movies are not swamps, but they do offer hints as to why the religion of millions of Koreans, Filipinos and other Asians remains so alien here. One lubricous example is Kazuyuki Izutsu’s 1985 film “The Second is a Christian,” in which a pretty Catholic nun (Etsuko Shihomi) is romanced by a yakuza and a police detective who regard her vow of chastity as an annoyance to be overcome. Hilarity ensues.

“Jesus,” the feature debut of 23-year-old director Hiroshi Okuyama that premiered at last year’s San Sebastian International Film Festival, would seem to be in this absurdist vein. One indication: Its Japanese title translates as “I Hate Jesus.” Going in, I imagined 78 minutes of comic savior-bashing.

Jesus (Boku wa Iesu-sama ga Kirai)
Run Time 78 mins.
Opens May 31

Instead, the film tells a story of friendship and loss that cuts deep, despite the whimsical surrealism of the opening scenes. It also says something true about the psychology of kids in general and one hard-to-impress fitth-grader in particular.

Nine-year-old Yura (Yura Sato) moves from Tokyo with his parents to live with his grandmother in a mountain village and study at a Christian elementary school. (This choice of academy is something of a mystery, since Yura has no noticeable Christian background).

Feeling lonely and out of place, he prays in the school chapel for a friend, and subsequently sees a tiny man (Chad Mullane) who looks like the Jesus found in Western art: White-robed, long-haired and non-Japanese.

This little savior is mute, though he expresses himself with gestures, both clear and enigmatic. He is more reminiscent of local folklore figure Issun Boshi — a diminutive warrior with a needle for a sword — than anything in the Christian canon.

Soon after, Yura runs into classmate Kazuma (Riki Okuma), a popular kid who is a school soccer star. The two boys start kicking a ball around and quickly become pals. When Yura next sees Jesus, in the bathtub, he asks for money and, lo and behold, his grandma gifts him with a ¥1,000 banknote. He starts to see the lord as a wish-granting Aladdin.

Soon after this low-key comedy stops, as do the miracles. A tragedy shatters Yura’s world and makes him hate the little man, who stays silent and does nothing but look sad and hapless. Forced to deal with the situation on his own, Yura finds, if not answers, ways to cope. Which doesn’t mean he goes running to his Grandma’s Buddhist altar.

As Yura, newcomer Yura Sato is a more appealing figure than the gnomish kid on the film’s poster (though someone should have trimmed those eye-obscuring bangs before the start of shooting). On the quiet side, he nonetheless has a real-kid streak of independence and rebellion, pushing back against beliefs he can’t accept.

Okuyama’s Jesus is less a snarky sacrilege than a projection of Yura’s own limited understanding — a kid-sized savior, if you will. He’s cute and has a trick or two up his robe, but triumph over death isn’t one of them. Which is the whole point of Jesus, isn’t it?

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