We Are Little Zombies begins with an opening voice-over in which a character compares the dusty ash of her parents to Parmesan cheese. That should tell you all you need to know about the kind of wacky comedy you’re in for. Well, maybe not all—no amount of forewarning can quite prepare you for when its massive dose of lysergic surrealism and frenetic energy hits.
Written and directed by Makoto Nagahisa (who won a Sundance Grand Jury Prize for a short version of the film) this macabre story centres on the strange foursome of Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), Ishu (Satoshi Mizuno), Takemura (Mondo Okumura) and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima). All misfits and orphans, they find one another outside the cremation facility, and bond over their shared inability to feel anything or cry over their parents’ deaths — dubbing themselves “zombies” due to how dead they are inside. Unsure what to do or where to go, they resolve to roam around together in search of emotion.
For a group of nihilistic zombies who claim to be cold and dead inside, their world is audaciously loud and colourful. The film draws its major aesthetic inspiration and its score from retro 8-bit video games, as the foursome occasionally move in right-angled paths like electronic characters or mirror the actions of the zombies in Hikari’s game—taking the “stages of grief” to a whole new meaning as title cards show them progressing through the levels of life.
Quick cuts and rapid-fire dialogue give this seemingly tragic tale unbridled energy. Even the deaths of the parents are treated with an absurdist sense of humour. Hikari’s parents die on a bus tour touting “happiness,” Ishi has lost his sense of taste after his parents died in a fire while cooking stir-fry, Takemura’s cruel parents died by suicide, while Ikuko’s parents were murdered by her piano teacher. It’s still dark stuff—but visually, at least, it’s blindingly bright. The cinematography by Hiroaki Takeda is a kaleidoscopic array of aesthetics, from black and white to enhanced colours, fish-eye to wide lens, direct-to-camera interviews and degraded home videos, with numerous changes in aspect ratio and vibrant animated sequences. Occasionally it can be a bit overwhelming to deal with this constant assault on the senses, as the film embodies an almost unhinged glee as it astonishes us with the sheer number of styles and outlandish effects it parades past us.
But underneath its flash and flair, We are Little Zombies is a surprisingly tender coming-of-age story, examining the alienation and disconnection of four unloved kids. Hikari gives the film its soul through his wry and melancholy monologues, recalling being bullied at school or being neglected by his parents. Each of the other Zombies have similar stories of abandonment that began long before they were orphaned, living in an uncaring world where adults do not seem to care whether they live or die. Long treated like trash by peers and parents, they now wander through wastelands together, seeking homes amidst the refuse.
They wander everywhere from cemeteries to apartments to batting cages to love hotels, getting involved in various shenanigans trying to find feelings, but somehow they conclude the answer lies in music. Thus they scheme to start a band—a “kickass” band—and scavenge for instruments, ravaging trash heaps until they can pull together enough to start their group. Hikari has never even done karaoke, but he becomes the lead singer, with Ishi on drums, Takemura on bass, and Ikuko on keyboard. Before they know it, the ‘Little Zombies’ are superstars, and piles of garbage give way to sold-out rock arenas.
Their path to stardom may sound a bit insane, but it also seems to make strange sense. It helps that their songs are all insanely catchy earworms. The film’s standout showpiece is the band’s first performance: an unbroken sequence (shot with an iPhone) where they orchestrate a massive dance party amid the wreckage of their garbage-dump studio. Their elaborate stagings and sudden musical gifts feel like a total fantasy, but one that’s hard not to buy into. When they quickly transform into glamorous rock stars, everyone who once taunted or overlooked them suddenly becomes a fan—but every producer becomes eager to exploit them and profit from their emotional trauma. The film constantly sends a cynical message about the lies that parents and pop culture sell that the world is full of sunshine and rainbows; if Hikari provides soul and self-reflection, Ikuko provides punk edge and ass-whooping, and she leads the band in giving an anarchic middle finger to controlling adults and manipulative societal forces. Coming-of-age is a truly terrifying thing because adulthood is so monstrous—better for them to stay dead than ever grow up.
Though the pacing can drag a bit in its later portion, the film probes at some surprisingly intense despair. Hikari goes through a dark night on the soul reflecting on his miserable life, which, devoid of all joy, suddenly turns black and white. Here the video game imagery suddenly takes on new depressing dimensions, as he wonders whether the game of living is even fun anymore—until his friends encourage him to not choose darkness, and instead continue playing. And so he does, even if he’s still not quite sure what his life will look like as he grows up. “We are zombies but alive,” Hikari sings in a catchy beat over the credits, “dragging ourselves through each day.” Maybe it’s a bit of a bleak way to look at things, but ultimately the film offers at least a little catharsis as these kids start to feel emotion, and feel human, again.Cheerfully misanthropic and endlessly angsty, We Are Little Zombies is an explosive pop-rock shriek into the void; bursting with creativity and confronting the darkest truths about life, death, and growing up in over-saturated hues. It can feel perhaps a bit overstuffed with ideas and pure chaotic energy, but makes sure that viewers get the most out of its crazy games. There’s no reset button on our lives, and we never know what might lurk around the next corner or on the next level, so we just have to keep playing: playing games, playing music, and playing along with whatever weirdness life throws at them next.
We Are Little Zombies is available in Digital Cinemas and Live Cinemas in the US on July 10th
by Katie Duggan
Katie is a recent graduate of Princeton. Hailing from New Jersey, she has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.