Film / Reviews

'We Are Little Zombies': Cynical tweens on an 8-bit escapade

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

The kids aren’t quite alright. After watching his late parents go up in smoke at a crematorium, all Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) can think about is how their ashes look like the Parmesan cheese he sprinkles over his spaghetti.

On meeting fellow orphans Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) and Takemura (Mondo Okumura), he finds that they’re equally unfazed by their recent bereavements. Blame the parents. Blame society. Or blame the fact that they’re all 13 years old.

There’s little space for sentimentality in “We Are Little Zombies,” a vibrant, deliciously cynical tween comedy by first-time feature maker Makoto Nagahisa. The movie won a World Dramatic Special Jury Award for Originality at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which sounds about right. It’s tart, refreshing and a bit queasy, like drinking too much C.C. Lemon on a hot day.

We Are Little Zombies (Wi A Ritoru Zombizu)
Rating
Run Time 120 mins.
Language JAPANESE

The bespectacled Hikari — who also supplies the film’s deadpan narration — has already suffered years of benign neglect when his parents perish in a traffic accident. Declaring that “reality is too stupid to cry over,” he prefers to immerse himself in the vintage handheld console that he carries everywhere: a chunky, Game Boy-style contraption whose 8-bit aesthetic leeches out into the world around him.

Each chapter of the story is introduced as a “stage,” with a title screen redolent of old-school Nintendo role-playing games, while the onscreen action plays out to a bleeping chiptune soundtrack (also courtesy of Nagahisa). It’s a cute look that serves a deeper purpose, and eventually leads to some genuine pathos.

Faced with the prospect of living with his aunt, Hikari decides to run away with his newfound orphan pals instead. Their picaresque adventures take them from shoplifting and playing truant to forming a band — the eponymous Little Zombies — whose overnight success leaves them convinced that the adult world is just as awful as they’d thought. But will they ever start to feel again?

Nagahisa first came to attention with “And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool,” an attention-deficit ode to adolescent ennui that picked up the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2017. “We Are Little Zombies” takes one of that film’s riffs and develops it into a full-length feature, while retaining (and sometimes straight-up repeating) the hyperactive visual flourishes.

The movie hurls ideas at you at such a frenetic clip, it’s hard to keep up: a barrage of playful point-of-view shots, weird lenses, photo collages, dream sequences, sight gags, Super 8 footage, garish color palettes and even a bit of stop-motion animation. At two hours in length, it should be exhausting, yet there’s enough substance and heart in Nagahisa’s script to keep this from seeming like a mere exercise in style.

For all the formal playfulness, “We Are Little Zombies” keeps one foot planted in a recognizable reality. There are ample moments that ring true, whether it’s Hikari marveling at the strangeness of Japanese funeral rites, or the kids navigating a station full of adult “zombies” entranced by their cellphones. The quartet’s brush with musical fame also yields plenty of knowing details, even if this is the one section where the film starts to drag.

Just when the emotional blankness threatens to become stifling, Nagahisa delivers an unexpectedly affecting conclusion that nevertheless stays true to what’s come before. It’s a bravura finish to an extremely accomplished debut.