Miss Zombie (Japan, 2013) [Japan Cuts/NYAFF 2014]

Miss Zombie is set in a future Japan where zombies exist, but not in a large-scale apocalyptic way that is common in Western horror films. With the exception of the zombies, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Miss Zombie as a true horror film.

An enterprising businessman has rounded up zombies and sells them as domestic help with the explicit warning to feed them only fruits and vegetables. Feeding the zombies meat will make them go feral and attack people. One female zombie (Ayaka Komatsu) is sent to the home of Dr. Teramoto (Toru Tezuka)—along with a gun in case anything goes wrong. She is put to work scrubbing an outdoor patio space by the doctor’s wife, Shizuko (Makoto Togashi), who also gives her some decent clothes to wear. Every day the zombie methodically scrubs the patio and is then sent back to the storage shed with a bag of food and a flower. Shizuko makes an attempt to be kind to the creature, even greeting her every morning when she arrives for work.

One afternoon the couple’s young son falls into a lake while playing and drowns. In her grief, Shizuko drags the zombie into the house, begging her to bring her son back, which she does. When the boy awakens, his first instinct is to hug the zombie. Over time, the boy spends more and more time with the zombie, which devastates Shizuko. What ultimately sends her over the edge is catching her husband having sex with the zombie, and she becomes virtually catatonic. When she finally snaps out of her stupor, it leads to the film’s unpredictable but very satisfying climax.

Written and directed by cult director Sabu AKA Hiroyuki Tanaka, Miss Zombie is presented entirely in black and white, with the exception of a few brief moments near the end, and this augments the story’s bleak and somber atmosphere. There is minimal dialogue, as it is not necessary—the actors do a remarkable job of telling the story through body language, some Special FX, and facial expressions alone.

There is no background for the existence of the zombies. It is implied that the outbreak is not widespread by the fact that they are bought and sold as commodities. What we are told is that it is caused by a virus, but that the severity of symptoms is determined by the viral lode found in the body. The less viral material, the closer to human the zombies are—and the more docile.

We do get a brief backstory for the female zombie displayed in the form of quick snippets of memory that come to the zombie as she seems to be reverting back to human after “saving” the boy. As the boy becomes more attached to the zombie, she regains some of her lost humanity, killing local thugs to feed the boy. At the same time that the zombie is regaining her lost self, Shizuko loses herself as her family falls apart, reverting to a somnolence that lasts for days. I found this to be a rather brilliant aspect to the story, and one that really is the main focus of the film–how these two very different women are affected by the catastrophic events that bring them together and ultimately binds them to each other in a complex relationship.

The zombie is a sympathetic character, even when she eventually kills the thugs. As she walks back to the storage shed every night she has rocks thrown at her by local children and the aforementioned thugs stab her with everything from a pen to a butcher knife, which each night she calmly removes from her shoulder before eating. Her story becomes downright heartbreaking as she regains some memories of her former life and what she really lost the day she died. She is also sexually abused by the two handymen working at the doctor’s home and eventually by the doctor, himself. I feel there is a definite nod to Frankenstein in the sympathetic creature.

Shizuko is also a sympathetic character, as she is a woman who is losing her family to a zombie—a dead thing that by the natural order of things shouldn’t even exist. Shizuko’s husband is callous and cold toward her. The only hint of emotion from him is toward the zombie. Shizuko becomes a broken woman and it is tragic to watch.

I did have one big issue with Miss Zombie – that she was left to walk across town to the storage shed on her own. Why wasn’t she escorted there by the doctor or the two handymen who worked for him? A zombie walking alone through a town, even though docile, is potentially dangerous. And how about the doctor protecting his investment? He probably spent good money on the zombie, why wouldn’t he want to make sure nothing happened to it? Why send the zombie off the property in the first place?

Barring that one issue, Miss Zombie is an excellent film that takes the Western idea of a zombie and turns it on its head. This is a brilliant bit of storytelling that I highly recommend seeing.

Miss Zombie  is showing at Japan Society on July 12. This screening is a co-presentation of the New York Asian Film Festival and JAPAN CUTS. The full schedule for NYAFF 2014 can be found here; the JAPAN CUTS schedule can be found here.