An extremely impressive first feature film from Makoto Nagahisa, a musical comic drama about navigating life out of grief, both deep and uplifting.
We Are Little Zombies is a Japanese film, not about zombies as such, but about kids dealing with grief. There are many films that focus on children going through an emotional period; and whether we’re talking about A Monster Calls or My Neighbour Totoro, they tend to be pretty serious: We Are Little Zombies primarily tells its story as if from the main character’s own mind, rather than simply observing it; and here lies its uniqueness. Even when Hikari and his friends are baring their souls to each other, or trying to adjust to new lives, their world is full of color, games, music, and fantasy: these are the tools to express their feelings when they don’t even know what those feelings are.
Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Takemura (Mondo Okumura) first meet at their parents’ funerals. They are all of a similar age (thirteen, give or take) and find that they are all having similar struggles with emotions in the midst of grown-up protocols and ceremonies, and thus they consider themselves zombies. As Hikari says, “Babies cry to signal that they need help. Since no one can help me, there is no point crying.” A sixteen-minute pre-credits prologue introduces the film as Hikari’s story and outlines what leads to these “four unemotional people” meeting. From there forwards We Are Little Zombies is essentially a quest, with the party forming, acquiring inventory, and then heading out into the world to either navigate life without emotions or find some.
The four have become orphaned due to four wildly different causes, and have strikingly different backgrounds and personalities, though none of these differences is an obstacle to their bond; rather, they find more reasons to take an interest in and support each other with every “stage”. Whether it’s domestic abuse, food issues, or everyday loneliness, these kids accept what each other has had to face and go forwards together, giving up prohibited.
We Are Little Zombies is presented as a video game in many ways, such as new level screens, 8-bit style music throughout, talk of a big boss to defeat, and the lovely image of the kids walking around hedges like Pac Man into Hikari’s home. It may seem somewhat “style over substance” at times, but I’m convinced this works as a way of seeing life as Hikari does; especially as his only friends until now have been his games. There is much more to the film’s style than the influence of video games, though. When Hikari is focusing on his own history, his storytelling is presented like a video journal; then this device is put aside when other characters get their turn. The beautiful use of colors is worth a mention, whether in simple backgrounds, or flamboyant sunsets. Hiroaki Takeda’s cinematography overall is remarkable, with – frankly – countless perfect shots, my favorites being overhead shots (or those involving goldfish).
And then, there’s the music. The central high point of We Are Little Zombies is the formation of a pop band by the four friends (called “Little Zombies”, which is shot to fame by marketing and social media; not to mention the very catchy tunes, written by the band Love Spread for the film. Their live gig was filmed in one cut on iPhone, a separate and strong technique to make it stand out from the rest of the film. But even before and after this stage of the story, the film is simply riddled with music – apparently over ninety songs overall – from piano tunes, through electronic and guitar pieces, and drunken relatives singing. Music has always been a way for teenagers to find and express their feelings, and much of the music in We Are Little Zombies is used to demonstrate the way that sometimes if a person doesn’t appear to have any emotions, there can be a lot going on behind a mask.
I was staggered to discover that We Are Little Zombies is the first feature film from director Makoto Nagahisa, who also wrote it and was responsible for much of the music. The film brought him the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Originality at its World Premiere, Sundance Film Festival in 2019, and I can see why. Although some elements have been done before, and some have clearly been inspired by other filmmakers, the blend of depth and lightness, of comic drama and mind-of-a-child fantasy has rarely been combined so effectively. The use of Hikari’s personality as a canvass for the story also gave it an utterly unique outlook.
At two hours long, there is only just enough plot to fill the film, and some may feel it is too long. The other possible flaw (and can you tell I’m stretching a little?) is the way the ending is not terribly decisive; but personally, I feel that it fits: life does simply carry on when crises have been faced and bosses defeated. So those weren’t really issues for me. I’ve only avoided giving We Are Little Zombies a top rating because I refuse to believe Nagahisa has reached his peak in his first film. I’m watching keenly for more.
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Alix has been writing for Ready Steady Cut since November 2017. They cover a wide variety, including genre festivals, and especially appreciates wit and representation on screen.