‘Reality’s too stupid to cry over’ Hakira proclaims at the cremation of his parents. The teenage main character of We Are Little Zombies could easily pass for the lead in a Wes Anderson film – wise beyond his years, with a wry quip for every occasion. That is, if Wes Anderson had spent his childhood hooked on 8-bit video games and jacked up on sugary snacks. Little Zombies, the debut feature from Makoto Nagahisa, may not be perfect, but sports more ideas in the first minute than most films have in their whole runtime. A wild, pop-culture-infused ride that marks Nagahisa as a filmmaker to watch, the film energetically bounces from issues relating to grief, to generational neglect, and starting a rock band.
The first half an hour of this Japanese oddball comedy is its strongest act. We are introduced to Hakira (video game obsessed recluse who is clearly based on Nagahisa), and three other misfits who become the members of his ‘party’ – a nod to RPG video games which this film’s structure leans on heavily. They meet at the crematorium where they quickly find out that they share a very unique bond – their parents snatched away for various reasons. All ‘single players’ in their own right, the group decide to band together and go on an adventure. Complete with a number of god’s eye shots that follow the party around akin to that of a RPG, this is their chance to escape the incompetence of the adults that try to tell them how to grieve. Each section of the film is split up into different ‘stages’, with the characters ‘acquiring’ different items such as a wok and bass guitar which are prompted by 8-bit title cards.
The characters often speak directly to the camera, seamlessly introducing the audience to their shared alienation moulded by their newfound grief and parents’ neglect. Nagahisa’s multicoloured and dynamic exploration of how they wrap their heads around their situation is what gives the film real bite – the characters regularly insisting that they are the ones that have died. Included as part of the Generation 14 strand of the Berlinale which programmes coming of age films specifically targeted at young audiences, Little Zombies’ blunt openness about bereavement is admirably bold, always making sure that it looks from the perspective of its teenage leads. Their acerbic outlook on life provides some hilarious one-liners too. As Hakira introduces the party to his parent’s high-rise flat he mutters, ‘Hello silence, I’m home.’
Despite the many wonderful ideas thrown at the audience, the film routinely veers off-course, indulging bizarre notions that have a negative impact on the clarity of the story, the biggest of which comes when the four decide to form a band and accidentally become a viral sensation. The music composed for Little Zombies is a wonderful fusion of 8-bit, indie and K-pop, but as the band are propelled into the spotlight, the film focuses less on its characters and more on the fickleness of social media trends, which feels like it belongs to separate film altogether. The most interesting aspect of this section is how the adults that manage the band try to package their fluorescent but dark image. Nagahisa alludes the adult’s predilection with money to Japan’s post-war sociological shift, but again, this feels like another in a cascade of ideas that should’ve been more ruthlessly assessed in the editing room.
Just as easily as it veers off-course, Nagahisa wrangles the story back to make a satisfyingly positive ending that honours the promise of its opening section, and consequently is still something worth seeking out despite its short attention span. Mirroring expansive RPGs – where a player can go down side quests that have nothing to do with the main plot – Little Zombies is a densely-packed piece of fun with impressive performances from its young leads.
(P.S. I would love to see what Nagahisa does with a Bandersnatch-esque Choose Your Own Adventure film.)
Writer/Director: Makoto Nagahisa
Starring: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sens Nakajima