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, Ikuko, Ishi, and Takemura, encounter each other at the funerals of their respective parents. All are disaffected, deciding not mourn parents who did not care for them. They soon form a tight bond that sees them embark on several adventures: theft, exploring their respective backstories, and becoming a musical zeitgeist.
In fact, their lives become a literal RPG game as they must move through levels of friendship and are sometimes filmed with bird eye-view shots. The film 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 counterparts prowl for affection. Portrayed as a femme fatale, her blankness is a prime example of how men reflect their desires on women: she’s a mother, a lover, an object of pure sexual desire, 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 concept, with the four creating a balled called: “Little Zombies.” They soon become sucked into the unforgiving and exploitative commercialization of the music business, a business that takes 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, reality, video games, a short B-movie horror film, and purely morbid aphrodisiacs is held together by Hiroaki Takeda‘s cinematography, which can switch from black-and-white to a Lucky Charms rainbow of color, or smaller compact framing to large-scale tracking shots, in an instance.
The skill and bravery to assume so many styles and ideas in two hours is staggering. Sometimes this well-meaning self-indulgence weighs down this two-hour film, as it could be 10 minutes shorter, but 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.
Their Camus-driven cynicism and apathy 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 joyous adventurous story of a four-piece confronted with tragedy and morbid apathy.