Let me tell you about one of the nuttier movies from Sundance; a film with elements of stop-motion, video-game humor, and music-video stylings; a film where a boy’s family dies in a bus crash en-route to a strawberry field and he later forms a band with three other apathetic orphans. Japanese director Makoto Nagahisa‘s debut feature We Are Little Zombies is an ode to cynical grief, an apology for those who don’t cry at funerals, and a damn fun time.
The film’s four orphans: Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Takemura (Mondo Okumura), encounter each other at the funerals of their respective parents. All are disaffected, deciding not to mourn guardians who never cared for them. They soon form a tight bond that sees them embark on several adventures: from thieving, to exploring their respective backstories, to becoming a musical zeitgeist.
In fact, their lives morph into a literal RPG game, advancing through several levels of friendship, with their actions sometimes filmed with bird eye-view shots. We Are Little Zombies is also marked by a video game infused score, electronically waltzing at a fun and lighthearted pace that often runs counter to the film’s sobering events.
In We Are Little Zombies, Nagahisa also confronts the cliched female role in an adventure film. Without a ring finger, Ikuko is a girl who can’t be owned, even as her male counterparts prowl for her affection. Portrayed as a femme fatale, her blank expressions are prime examples of how men reflect their desires on women: she’s a mother and a lover, an object of pure sexual desire to these boys, but in actuality, is none of those things. She rejects those monikers, instead, existing as her own entity.
The second half of the film switches to a musical frame, with the four writing a ballad entitled “Little Zombies.” They soon become sucked into the unforgiving and exploitative commercialization of the music business, a business that takes advantage of their respective tragic backstories to sell records. The argument of larger tragedies leading to quick and vapid commercial appeal, which can be found in a film like Vox Lux, is played to a more comical effect here.
The divergent styles: between dreams and reality — between video games short B-movie horrors, and purely morbid aphrodisiacs, is held together by Hiroaki Takeda‘s cinematography, which can switch from black and white frames to a Lucky Charms rainbow of color, in an instant.
Though Nagahisa’s well-meaning self-indulgences sometimes weighs down this two-hour adventure, as it could be 10 minutes shorter, the fury and playfulness it attacks its audience with is brilliant. Plus, any film that does a cover of The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year” will usually steal one’s heart.
The children’s Camus-inspired apathetic cynicism eventually leads to an ending where Hikari must choose between life and death. During my Sundance screening, many left when the faux credits began. Those who exited were left with a film that ended with the line, “Life is shit.” However, if you were like me and stayed, you were given a life-affirming conclusion that doesn’t feel convoluted or improbable. Instead, there’s an authentic and logical redemption that occurs. We Are Little Zombies is as addictive as the pop-music it creates, and as strong as the camaraderie it evokes: a buoyant story of a four-piece confronted with tragedy and morbid nihilism.
Images ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’