Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Japanese writer/director Makoto Nagahisa’s debut feature is brilliant. It’s a bonkers fever dream with a profound narrative that matches its visual inventiveness.
However, “We Are Little Zombies” isn’t for everyone. For all it’s striking, subversives 8-bit video game nostalgia combined with odd, alien posturing, the message might seem morbid and off-putting for some. Many viewers will struggle to stay with the film as it meanders, at times, in self-indulgent, but fantastic ways. There’s a point to it, and when it ends, it all makes sense... I think.
The story follows four thirteenish kids who all lose their parents at around the same time. They are orphaned by a car accident, a fire, a murder, and so forth. A chance meeting at a crematorium brings them together in their emptiness. They describe themselves as “zombies,” who now float about with no future, but they are plagued with dreams, some of which are nightmares.
As they wander from location to location, they begin to find a peculiar purpose, although their nihilistic thoughts plunge them into denial. While finding safety in an abandoned building, they get the idea to form what they describe as “a kick-ass” rock band. And that’s what they do.
Don’t expect their music to be a sunny, heavily polished K-Pop imitation. These little zombies collect their instruments from garbage heaps, meshing them with pieces of their own lives. For example, they assemble a makeshift drum set using a wok that Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) retrieves from the charred ruins of his parents’ restaurant.
Through the magic of social media, their first song, suitably titled “We Are Little Zombies,” goes viral. The punkish tune becomes a cross-over pop sensation. But the foursome’s newfound fame brings them little happiness. Closure is far away.
Director Nagahisa’s music video influences are prevalent throughout “We Are Little Zombies.” There are extended musical sequences that are stylish and potentially confusing for the casual viewer. But the overall effect is a swirling kaleidoscope of fantastic, colorful images—live-action and animated. It’s an intoxicating, highly entertaining stew, cooked up with care and intention.
Structured like an 8-bit video game, and often relying on insert shots of band vocalist Hikari’s handheld gaming device, “We Are Little Zombies” takes advantage of a path that many of us should recognize. The introspective Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) thinks of his life as one big game, and he’s headed to the “boss level” showdown.
It’s purposely difficult to separate what’s going on in Hikari’s head from what’s happening in the real world. While the lines are blurred, there are sincere touches that keep the film grounded. The band’s manager, Kuriko (Eriko Hatsune), for example, isn’t some exploitative monster, and as their album is released, the label president questions his decisions. Later the gang lumps him in with them, Kuriko is a just a kid too.
The wildly creative and finely crafted “We Are Little Zombies” isn’t an outlier in Japanese cinema. Knowledgeable watchers will associate it visually with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 comic/horror fantasy, “Hausu.” But where that film is more of an animated/live-action cinematic treat than a narrative triumph, Nagahisa’s movie is a more cohesive feature.
Infinitely quotable dialogue and endlessly inventive visuals make “We Are Little Zombies” a unique motion picture experiment.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com