We Are Little Zombies (Japan, 2019) [Reel Asian 2019]

Four orphaned teens find solace in each other’s misery in Makoto Nagahisa’s adventurous debut feature We Are Little Zombies. Winner of the “Originality” award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and a Crystal Bear Special Mention at the Berlin Film Festival, writer/director/composer Nagahisa manages to pull off the perfect combination of banality and poetry, delivering one of the most unique films of the year. We Are Little Zombies is smart, innovative, heart-breaking, visually stunning, not to mention completely off the rails.  

The film begins with a short prologue describing the meeting of the four protagonists. After losing both his parents in a tour-bus accident – one that is ironically named the “all you can eat strawberries” tour – Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) meets 3 other similarly bereaved children, Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), all of whom have just lost their parents. The four of them unite not only in their tragic circumstances, but also in their inability to display any real emotion towards the death of their parents. Hence, they label themselves the “Little Zombies” and embark in a strange and psychedelic odyssey towards escapism and self-discovery.

When they run out of money, the protagonists form a rock band using trash and stolen instruments as their props. Thanks to social media and a fortuitus security guard with a camera, the Little Zombies’ first song catapults them into major success and turns them into a nationwide sensation, as thousands of fans seem touched by their tragic background. The band’s success is short-lived, however. Never comfortable in the public eye, the Little Zombies denounce their Rockstar status and decide to go back to being regular kids again. The group’s fame disappears almost as quickly as it arrived. Nevertheless, their journey continues, and eventually the Little Zombies realize that life has no grand finale, but simply goes on one day at a time.

We Are Little Zombies would be classified as an experimental film if only it wasn’t so conventionally entertaining. The filmmakers employ pretty much every technique under the sun: 8-bit animation, stop motion, color filters, CGI, different aspect-ratios, music videos, TV interviews, fourth-wall breaking, and so much more, all in rapid-fire succession. Almost every scene looks different, and you never know what’s coming next. The only consistent part of this film is its inconsistency, and while that sounds like a criticism, it somehow works in the film’s favor. Nagahisa’s uniting vision and carefully employed French New Wave tactics quenches the film’s technical disparity. His style and devil-may-care energy dangerously skirt the line between confidence and madness, but never crosses it completely. Hence the movie remains sane. The wonderfully stoic performances of the four protagonists also contribute, keeping Nagahisa’s gonzo, non-conformist style sufficiently grounded.

The same praise goes for the soundtrack, composed by the director himself, which is crucial to the plot. We Are Little Zombies is the title of the band’s first (and only) hit song which appears around the hour-mark and serves as the closest thing there is to a climax. Thematically, the score follows closely the 8-bit video game aesthetic, driving home the immersion that the filmmakers are clearly going for.

The narrative consists of 13 chapters, or “stages,” as it would be in a video game, the first half of which builds nicely towards the creation of the rock band. The second half is the denouement. Nagahisa employs a rather unconventional arc for his characters, but it works well given his existentialist aims. It’s only towards the end when he seems to have run out of steam as the film’s resolution feels tacked-on, like an afterthought. Nagahisa is perfectly aware of this and quotes Kafka, who famously left most of his works unfinished, squeezing in a metaphor about life somewhere in there. It’s a clever cop-out, but a cop-out nonetheless.

We Are Little Zombies is a wonderful film brimming with love and creativity. Not everyone will be able to get past the film’s inconsistent experimentation, which frankly does feel like a gimmick at times, but if they do, they’re bound to have a great time.

We Are Little Zombies is showing at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival on November 10.