You are in luck– a fresh, exhilarating new film opens on YOUR screens this weekend: WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES. A buzzy hit at Sundance last year, it’s the debut feature film by writer/director Makoto Nagahisa and sparkles with inventiveness and style, humor and wisdom, humanity and digital dazzle. It’s a fizzy mashup of retro video game effects, pop culture and pop-up book innocence, a new way into age-old questions about life and death prompted by human suffering–and it’s a trip!
The main character Hikari (Ninomiya Keita), a video game-obsessed 13 year-old, is our guide. His name means “light” and we follow that light to the end of the tunnel where life itself is questioned. Hikari’s parents have just died in a road accident and his opening words set us off on an existential pop odyssey. As he watches the ashes of his cremated parents waft into the air, he observes it is like “parmesan on a plate of bolognese.” Hilarious and absurd, the simile sets the tone, but Hikari is not as sad or ironically amused as I was to learn his parents died in a bus crash on a “Happiness Tour,” one of the “worst named package tours of all time: ‘All You Can Eat Strawberry Tour.'” Hikari, emotionless, declares “Reality is too stupid to cry over. And that’s that.” Not so fast. I was laughing and crying, and couldn’t wait to see where this was going.
Hikari soon meets three more “little zombies”: Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Takemura (Mondo Okumura) who each, at the precipitous age of 13, have also been orphaned in a world of random tragedy, disconnected from their own feelings. They band together in their zombie state of unfelt grief and loss, literally plucking music from a junk pile of discarded instruments to form a pop group which becomes mega famous! The film has much to say about commercialism, fame, errant parents, abusive adults, teen angst, loneliness, love, and what it takes to stay alive in an absurd, cynical, “faux emotive” and often cruel world.
These themes are held aloft by a buoyant aesthetic fusing all the basics: an adventure quest, brilliant color, terse narration, simple tunes and lyrics, old-fashioned video game graphics and an earnestness as direct as the primary colors a child would choose to draw the world. Nagahisa also uses classic tools in unexpected ways. His probing camera shoots from the most obvious yet unlikeliest of places– the bottom of the drinking glass, the inside of the coffin– and the perspective startles with the directness of its aim. Writer/director Nagahisa goes after life’s most elusive and painful questions without hesitation, straight on, and tells us so. Puccini’s famous aria of longing and dashed hope, Madame Butterfly’s “Un Bel Di” (“One Fine Day”), plays on the soundtrack, and Kafka’s elusive “The Castle” which its protagonist never gets to, is directly invoked by the foursome as a metaphor for life. This is the richness of the palette from which Nagahisa so breezily draws as he plumbs the murky depths beneath the bubbly surface he’s created, sparking a kaleidoscope of responses in the viewer and making the film a gem.
WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Originality at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. But its release in 2020 couldn’t be more timely. The title itself instantly resonates in a world leveled by a global pandemic and racial strife, disconnected from the familiar, searching for emotional connection and meaning in tragedy, pressed to invent new rules for a new game going forward– if we’re not gonna be little zombies.
In Japanese with English subtitles, now playing in select live and virtual cinemas including The Coolidge Corner Theatre!