Its title may suggest a kiddy monster movie, but writer/director Makoto Nagahisa’s feature debut We Are Little Zombies (Wî â Ritoru Zonbîzu) offers a rather different kind of child-oriented horror, where the ADHD ebullience and wild desultoriness of youthful energy serve, at least in part, to disguise a much deeper existential, explicitly Kafka-esque dread.
We get a flavour of this right in the opening scene. An industrial chimney is seen belching smoke as, to the strains of Un bel di vedremo from Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly, we hear a young boy say with disarming detachment: “Today Mommy turned to dust. So did Daddy”, and then compare that dust to the paremesan sprinkled on spaghetti. The speaker is Hikari Takami (Keita Ninomiya), whose parents recently left him alone at home while they went on a package tour to ‘Strawberry Fields’ to discuss divorce, and were killed en route in a coach accident. While attending their cremation, Hikari encounters three other bereaved thirteen-somethings, Shinpachi Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), Yuki Takemura (Mondo Okumura) and Ikuko Ibu (Sena Nakajima). These four have their age and their sudden orphanhood in common, but what really bonds them is their shared lack of any sense of grief. They first get to know each other outside the crematorium in a rapid-fire exchange that is cut up with Noho Inamoto’s equally rapid editing, making this a breezy, funny meet-cute – but it takes place expressly (and visibly) beneath the dissipating ash of their respective parents, and their seeming indifference to what has happened introduces its own kind of jarring tension to the scene.
“Funerals need more humour,” comments Yuki, setting and, to an extent, justifying the bittersweet mood here, while also highlighting the tonal dissonance at play. Unable to cry or mourn, and bewildered precisely by this inability, the four children style themselves ‘the little zombies’, trapped in the drifting, shuffling state of their own emotionless anomie. “That legendary foursome,” Hikari states in voiceover, are “just ordinary kids. Free, yet fragile. The kind of kids you see everywhere.” Indeed there is something about their intermediate status, on the cusp of adulthood, that marks their adventures as typical adolescent rites of passage. Less typical, though, are the deaths of the young teens’ respective parents, grounding all these exploratory flights of fancy in a grimmer reality. These kids are not just on the usual coming-of-age quest for identity through formative experience, but also seeking, as Hikari states, “to find out how to feel” – a sensation that they have lost in all the empty numbness of their often harrowing alienation.
Although we get the very different backstories of all four orphans (Yuki’s and Ikuko’s are particularly disturbing), Hikari is the protagonist and centre, his own tale forming the film’s beginning and end, and his obsession with video games pervading the film’s audiovisual language. For the narrative is presented as a series of formally numbered and titled ‘stages’, as though in an old-style platform game, all to the accompaniment of squelchy 8-bit sound effects (the nearest recent analogue to this mediated style is Miguel Llansó’s similarly VG-structured Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway, 2019). Hikari has disappeared into the imaginative world of his games because he is, essentially, unloved. Ignored at home, bullied at school, invisible to everyone else, he regards himself as a ‘single player’ – and the other three ‘zombies’ are the closest to a caring unit he has ever experienced, despite, or perhaps because, they each come with their own dysfunctional baggage.
The four run away together, and eventually form a rock band – The Little Zombies – briefly becoming a public sensation. This section of the film falls somewhere between Macoto Tezuka’s The Legend of the Stardust Brothers (1985), Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! (2013) and Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux (2018), as we witness this young group, forged from tragedy, trying and failing to maintain integrity as they are misunderstood by their fans, and commodified and exploited by the adults around them. Yet the film does not end there, but follows the four, disbanded but still together, on a pilgrimage to the spot where Hikari’s mother and father died. Along the way, Hikari will have an allegorical dream in which he must choose whether to continue or not – a classic set of options at the end of a videogame, but also a rather more serious, adult dilemma distressingly posed to, and by, someone who is still very much a child. Here the game is life and death, and Hikari is increasingly unable to see much value in the former.
This confounding of levity and gravity is at the heart of We Are Little Zombies. For while it is presented as a super-stylised, hyperactive, joyful celebration of youthful vitality, Nagahisa’s film is also constantly haunted by much darker themes: abuse, abandonment and especially death itself. Much as these children are likened to undead creatures – both the zombies of the title and the vampire for which Hikari is mistaken in one dreamy flashback – the film too is always negotiating a crepuscular space between fantasy and reality, tragedy and comedy, life and death.
The film’s final third displays the same lysergic mauves and greens seen in Shunji Iwai’s All About Lily Cho Chou (2001), which was similarly concerned with adolescent growing pains and music. In these later stages, We Are Little Zombies begins to lose some of its earlier verve and momentum. It might just be that the energy of the opening scenes is simply impossible to sustain over the duration of two hours – or a more generous viewer might suppose that, as the film’s more sombre themes rise from the grave, they inevitably displace some of the surface pizzazz. Nonetheless, the free-associative surrealism, multimedia mayhem and breaches of the fourth wall are maintained to the very end, where everything culminates in an infernal road trip to death’s primal scene, and beyond that to a walk through the strawberry fields where, as John Lennon helpfully observed, ‘nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about.’
They may be adrift, but we suspect that ultimately the kids will be alright, as We Are Little Zombies converts their disorientation, despair and downtrodden emotions into an oddly feel-good experience for the viewer. Blunt, blank trauma is rarely so perky, punky and fun. Death, after all, is not the end – and, as one character puts it, “maybe zombies have feelings too”.
© Anton Bitel