I suspect We Are Little Zombies will be one of the more polarizing films I recommend this year. Plenty like me will be dazzled by its endless visual inventiveness and creative storytelling. Others will be repelled by its off-its-Adderall hyperkineticism. But give it a chance, and you’ll probably be impressed by the insights it offers into grief. Just bear in mind that it wraps Kübler-Ross in a Scott Pilgrim aesthetic.
For a tale about a quartet of 13-year-olds whose parents have suddenly died, this is a surprisingly fun, and funny, film. The four of them meet by chance at the Tokyo crematorium where their parents, moments ago, went up in smoke. Each gets a solo vignette telling of their arrival to this point, with their own music style and color scheme. Hikari (in black and white, with an ‘80s-style video game soundtrack) was the child of wealthy parents, who failed to compensate for their neglect by filling his bedroom with video games. Ishi (green scheme, rap music) was doted on by parents who ran a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. Takemura was surrounded by domestic violence, aptly shown in red-tinged scenes accompanied by thrash metal. Finally, Ikuko, the lone girl in the group, gets blue pastels and dissonant, frantic piano music for an existence dominated by a creepy music teacher.
Bored by the funeral ceremonies and chastened for their lack of tears, the benumbed teens dub themselves the little zombies. Wanting to stay one step ahead of child protective services or the strange relatives who have grudgingly agreed to adopt them, they drift around Tokyo semi-aimlessly.
Since We Are Little Zombies is mostly told from Hikari’s perspective – bespectacled, with nose constantly in a handheld console – the film is designed like a video game, with each major event or destination labelled a “stage.” As the kids revisit their former homes and select a totemic childhood possession to retain, an intertitle announces “item acquired.” Hikari even has a final boss in his sights, the man he holds responsible for his parents’ death.
For his feature debut, writer/director Makoto Nagahisa has pulled out all the creative stops. There are pixelated, Claymation, and black-and-white scenes. Others use a fish-eye lens, slow motion, or color filters. Overhead shots sometimes give the impression that the kids are exploring a new, labyrinthine video game level. Heck, there’s more variation in point-of-view shots than we experienced in the entire five-season run of Breaking Bad. (Nagahisa also composed the film score, and if you aren’t humming one of its tunes when the movie ends, you’ve got a stronger resistance to earworms than I do.)
Some of this madcap variation strikes me as Nagahisa merely having a blast. Other choices carry potent symbolism: for instance, black-and-white scenes signify how colorless the world can appear to the suddenly bereaved.
With its exuberant unpredictability, Nagahisa’s film reminds me of the work of an earlier Japanese director, Juzo Itami (1933-1997). Itami gave us his own oddball take on death and dying in The Last Dance, but is best known for Tampopo. The latter is a must-see for any cinephile, as a bounding exploration of food as Japanese social glue. Leaping genres and veering in unexpected directions, I have to think it was an inspiration for We Are Little Zombies; in particular, a scene involving a group of homeless musicians owes a debt to Itami’s film.
None of the four leads here will likely be recognizable to Anglophone audiences. (Keita Ninomiya, the actor playing Hikari, was the central kid in Like Father, Like Son, by Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda – but that was seven years ago.) And none of them are called upon to show immense range, as they traverse the film in a mostly blunted emotional state.
But for a film about the numbing effects of grief, that’s not a liability. My only critique of We Are Little Zombies is that after a ceaselessly engaging, propulsive first hour, its second half starts to drag. However, it finishes strong, building to a jaw-dropping climax and denouement that extend into the closing credits.
With its juvenile exterior, We Are Little Zombies has great potential to draw adolescent audiences, who can then absorb its lessons on the workings of bereavement. And it’s a refresher that won’t do the grownups any harm, either. Nagahisa’s film isn’t even afraid to consider how suicide can entice when we’re in the depths of loss. Fortunately, it makes a more persuasive case for clearing each level of grief and sticking around until life gets its color back.
(We Are Little Zombies is now available to stream. You can support shuttered indie cinemas by renting it through sites like this one.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )