In spite of its colorful style and quirky video game motif, We Are Little Zombies is a surprisingly somber and thoughtful experience as it explores loneliness, death, and grief amid several ear worms. Written and directed by Makoto Nagahisa, We Are Little Zombies is a breakout feature-length debut from someone with a clear vision, unshackled by convention or hemmed in by traditional style. If there’s a version of We Are Little Zombies that plays it more straight, uses less POV-direction, has fewer video game elements, avoids using Wes Anderson-like animation, then that film would be a quarter as memorable and endearing.
Four separate, unconnected incidents result in four children — Hikari, Ikuko, Takemura, and Ishi (Keita Ninomiya, Sena Nakajima, Mondo Okumura, and Satoshi Mizuno) — becoming orphaned. Despite the losses of their parents, this quintet feels no pain, no remorse, and no sense of absence as each possessed a varying level of difficulty connecting to their respective mothers and fathers. Seemingly on a whim, they decide to form a band, Little Zombies, and they take the country by storm. Except fame brings about a new set of challenges that these ambivalent rockers are uninterested in addressing, which only makes you wonder: if you feel nothing and want nothing, what’s the purpose of being alive?
We Are Little Zombies is an incredibly ambitious film that nails just about every aspect it goes for. The general vibe of the film is established via an early gamer motif inspired by the 8-bit games of the 1980s, specifically one which Hikari plays throughout the entire film. It’s from here that the film gets many of the sound effects like pick-ups, jingles, hits, and others sounds a gamer of a certain age will readily identify. Similarly, the gaming motif is carried into the structure of the film, breaking it up into a 12-chapter (read: levels) structure plus prologue. While the film does incorporate a documentary-like talking head interview style with the band, the majority of the film is narrated by and focuses on Hikari. In many ways, Zombies is a film which utilizes the visual elements of gaming to explore a gamified life and how the constant search for more (money, fame, power, love) results in nothing but emptiness. Interestingly, even though the four main protagonists feel nothing about the losses of their parents, it doesn’t mean that they themselves are lifeless; they just don’t emote as they don’t see the point. It’s here that Nagahisa may be asking why we play if we do so without purpose. On the larger scale, he’s certainly not suggesting a nihilistic attitude, supporting a notion that life is, itself, without meaning. Instead, by way of the film, he’s asking us, the audience, to consider not just why these four continue on, but why do we as well. What drives us if the end is inevitable?
As far as explorations of life and death go, Nagahisa’s film is perhaps the most colorful and ear-wormy of the bunch. The visual style is influenced by gaming, but there’s also a purposefulness in the performances, costuming, cinematography, and production design that goes beyond just the 8-bit appeal. For instance, each of the Zombies has a specific color affiliated with their personage and their respective character chapters within the larger 12: Hikari being blue, Ikuko white, Takemura red/pink, and Ishi green. The clothes of each character are predominantly their signature color and the story of their origins largely features it, much like that of avatars in an 8-bit which require vivid individual character design to be easily identified. Especially during the character segments early on, the colors around them tend to match or favor the color of each character, something old school gamers will recognize quite well, but which Nagahisa, cinematographer Hiroaki Takeda (And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool.), and production designer Yukiko Kuribayashi (Goodbye, Grandpa!) seamlessly blend into every nook and granny of the film. It’s what gives each character portion its unique personality, like the performances themselves, and continues to allow each character to stand out individually even as the Zombies solidify as a group. Their performance costumes as Little Zombies do reflect this as well. Beyond the colors are the costumes themselves, seemingly punk-trash inspired, each one includes key items of each character’s past life like Ishi’s fork being representative of his parents’ restaurant or the blood-splatter design on Ikuko’s outfit symbolizing her parents’ murder. These are not explicitly stated by any of the characters, but it is obvious under any examination that these self-proclaimed Zombies, these so-called living while dead inside, possess enough emotional quotient to acknowledge outwardly what they can’t with words or actions. As purposeful as all this is, to see it all come together as discordant harmony in both the look and sound of the Zombies shatters the mind in how much sense it makes. Rather than a cacophony, there’s a beautiful resonance that lingers in the ear and mind’s eye.
The script and pacing allow the audience ample time to get to know each of the characters well before all four decide to become the band the film marketing proclaims them to be, so don’t get your Scott Pilgrim vs. the World-level excitement up too soon. The film runs just over two hours with the first half mostly spent as an exploration of their origins. This matters to better understand why these four cling to each other so deeply, especially by the end, but it does come back to hurt the efficiency of the film by the end as it eventually goes back to being about Hikari. Part of this may be because his story is the only one with a pseudo loose thread, one in which he did not make a choice that somehow influenced the death of his parents like the others. The need to resolve this, to perhaps end with some kind of hopefulness, ends up diverting the interesting an imaginative tale and nearly grinding it to a halt. However, the ingenious way in which Nagahisa crafts Hikari’s closure fits right in with the fairly anarchistic style of the rest of the film: provoking the audience all the way to the last.
For all that pulls you in, there’s still a part of We Are Little Zombies that will keep you at arm’s length. Whether this is by design or accidental is entirely up to the viewer as Nagahisa goes out of his way to incorporate several framing devices throughout the course of the film so that there are times you won’t know if what you’re watching is real or imagined. An imagined adventure can be just as emotionally satisfying as a real one, it’s just that the film can’t decide which it wants for itself. On the one hand, the film is primarily narrated by Hikari with the others being interviewed from time to time, the idea being that Zombies is a documentary about the most legendary band in music history. Reality, they proclaim, doesn’t just end, it keeps going. It’s a meta-declaration that signals to the audience Nagahisa plans to end Little Zombies momentarily, something which is beautifully shot and offers a delicate conclusion to the rather rambunctious film neatly. On the other, there’s a moment in which Nagahisa not-so-subtly implies that the majority of Zombies is a fabrication and it undercuts a larger thematic element explored regarding the lack of a satisfying ending in the “movie” of their life. Again, there’s nothing wrong with a dream taking the character (and audience) on a self-reflective journey of the mind. It just seems to be throwing in a wrench because it can versus for any kind of significance.
With all that said, We Are Little Zombies is going to be your new surprise favorite film. Even as the film gets weirder and weirder, throwing in musical numbers because it can or abruptly shifting in tone or narrative, it never loses the heart of its story: that life means more with friendship and connection makes us stronger than emotional walls with the heights of the Tower of Babel ever could. That it’s ok to be numb as long as you can acknowledge that numbness. That feeling unloved don’t make you weak, it makes you human. Makoto Nagahisa explores this and more in a film that typifies the term “unique” and “original” in a way I haven’t seen yet in 2020. It’s bold, it’s loud, and it makes no apologies.
Available in select theaters and virtual cinemas beginning July 10th, 2020.
To find a virtual or theatrical screening near you, head to the We Are Little Zombies website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.