The day before the premiere of Japanese writer/director Hiroshi Okuyama’s debut feature Jesus, FilmInk was welcomed to the interview room by a man in leopard print coat, glowing logo T-shirt and red brocade shoes.
“I thought I should look as Japanese as possible,” laughs Chad Mullane who has been ‘turning Japanese’ since he left Perth to pursue comedy in Tokyo 20 years ago and becoming one of the country’s best-known entertainers in the process.
Primarily a television personality, he has appeared in films, drama series, and performs in clubs and theatres across Japan. He is also the official English translator of many high-profile films and TV series.
“I discovered Japanese comedy by mistake, and it was amazing, there’s a lot of tradition but it’s always contemporary. Comedians have always led the culture there as far as I’m concerned. The short version is that they are really obsessed with making people laugh.”
Mullane takes on a whimsical non-speaking role in Okuyama’s breakout success Jesus, playing the Man himself.
Okuyama is a soft spoken 22-year-old, deeply thoughtful and instinctive about his creative process. Helped by a translator and Mullane’s fluent knowledge of the language he spoke about being surprised at the immediate success of his first film which scooped one of the biggest cash prizes at the San Sebastián Film Festival.
Asked what he thinks makes the film a standout, he explained that “it wasn’t part of the plan when I was making the film, but the theme of Christianity gave the film a universal appeal. Also, in Japan they don’t usually have any money or people with the skills to do subtitles so that was a great benefit.”
“I’m the one who put them in,” says Mullane. “He’s being nice acknowledging me.”
The story is simple and charming, full of poignant and humorous details, about a young boy, Yura (Yura Sato) who relocates from Tokyo to a small town in the mountains and has to cope with loneliness and adjusting to a new school with an unfamiliar Christian culture. We are introduced to characters subtly and from a child’s viewpoint. The mother is solicitous while the father assumes his son will be fine, while the recently widowed grandmother includes him in simple devotional rituals and at one point mending the paper screen his deceased grandfather poked holes in. It’s all done with economy and thoughtfulness.
The aesthetics of snowy exteriors and warm lit interiors are lovely.
“I’ve been taking photos all my life,” says Okuyama. “That’s what makes it distinctive. I was making the film look like a photo. It was a conscious choice to film from a little further back too. If I filmed close up, I would be cutting all the time but by taking it back further I wouldn’t be able to lie to anybody, I would have the scene playing as a complete scene on its own strengths for much longer.”
Like Yura, Okuyama moved from a non-Christian to a Christian school.
“As a child I became a strong believer that Jesus existed. When anything went well, I was grateful to Jesus and when it didn’t go well, that must have been making up for something else.”
To cast the tiny magical Jesus who becomes Yura’s friend, Okuyama saw Mullane as an obvious choice.
“When he was imagining this little Jesus, he wanted to make it as much like a Jesus that a Japanese kid would think of as possible,” Mullane says. “He liked the fact that I seem to have a few screws loose – I tell him I have a few too many screws. We had a script reading with all the cast and I was impressed that he didn’t give a script to the children. They didn’t learn their lines, he felt that would make them stiff in performance. He explained the story to them, and they would speak how they wanted. He hasn’t had much experience so to have worked that out as a good way to do it was great. And the script reading was really quick because he would just skip all the kids’ lines!”
The tiny Jesus has no lines at all, so the characterisation relies on Mullane’s playfulness and ability to project a presence on screen. This isn’t a remote devotional Jesus, he lives among Yura’s toys and games or hangs out behind doors or with a Santa Claus figure, reflecting wherever Yura imagines him to be.
“I was having to walk my way through a board game surrounded by Perspex screens,” Mullane says. “In one scene I’m running on a turntable that I had to improvise by sliding my feet across the floor. Hiroshi would give me directions as we went, nothing too specific. He was pasting my figure into footage when we were on set so he could see how it looked, then we could make adjustments until he got what he wanted. He did want Jesus to be funny, which is why he cast me.”
Okuyama has pulled off a charming and enjoyable depiction of the magic realism that is childhood; but what next? After he finished filming Okuyama landed a job with an advertising agency and is busy creating projects for them but says he would love to do another film soon.
“A sci-fi set in the not far off future,” Mullane translates. And although filmmaking is now his absorbing passion, Okuyama is still taking photos. “He’s going around all the film festivals taking pictures and one day he’d like to publish a book of them.”
As for Mullane, his next move may be to head back Down Under.
“Anyone who loves Japanese things, anime and so on, they’re always fans of Japanese comedy, they just don’t know it. I’m going to try and bring it into English. It’s a whole culture and I’d love to bring it here.”