“We Are Little Zombies,” writer-director Makoto Nagahisa’s debut feature, didn’t make the biggest splash here in the United States. Premiering at the Tokyo Film Festival last year, it was destined for theatrical release this past summer. But with all of the pandemic wonkiness and the general American distaste for subtitles and foreign fare, its unique cinematic flair has gone relatively unsung, despite being hosted by various virtual platforms across the country (including our very own Michigan Theater). In fact, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.
“We Are Little Zombies” might be a hidden gem then, obscured by the vicissitudes of lockdown living. Or maybe not. As strange as pandemic life is, “We Are Little Zombies” may outpace the current circumstances with just how gonzo it is.
“Today, Mommy turned to dust. So did Daddy. Dusty as parmesan on a plate of Bolognese.”
That’s the opening of the film; the blend of macabre matter-of-fact moroseness and absurdist comedy is a microcosm of the film as a whole. It’s spoken by the film’s lead, a young boy named Hikari (Keita Ninomiya, “Like Father, Like Son”). His parents have just died in an automobile accident. At the crematorium where young Hikari waxes poetic about the common ground between pasta and human remains, he meets a trio of other young children: Takemura (Mondo Okumura in his debut performance), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno, “Yûsha Yoshihiko”) and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima, “The Bastard and the Beautiful World”). These three stone-faced kids are likewise newly minted orphans, products of double suicide, a wok-related immolation and murder at the hands of a pedophilic piano teacher.
Becoming fast friends over their shared tragedy, this foursome does the only act emotionally-repressed tweenagers can do: form a band. A classic rock, chiptune band managed by a security guard and crewed by a band of homeless people.
That Bolognese quote wasn’t just emblematic of the mood or thematic content; “We Are Little Zombies” is a hyper-stylized, surrealist adventure that takes “Scott Pilgrim” and ups the arthouse inaccessibility a couple of notches. 8-bit text flashes across the screen frequently to denote the progression of the characters’ journey, à la a video game; a paper mâché tiger stalks Hikari at his parents’ funeral; interludes of archival footage and medieval artwork abound; and at one truly absurdist moment, the kids travel through a uterine dreamscape in a garbage truck superimposed with images of Hikari’s life as his own umbilical cord strangles the chassis of their vehicle.
And that’s not even covering the various obligatory musical numbers for a movie about a band (which are admittedly straight bangers).
These efforts fall on the gimmicky side. Every conceivable trick of the camera and editing technique is employed at one point or another to create an end product that can only be described as indulgent. At 120 minutes, the movie becomes tiresome. The enumerated video game levels that divide up the story only seem to incessantly advance higher and higher. Glassy eyes punctuated by glances at the clock may be a common occurrence for viewers who unknowingly stumble upon this film.
But for those who seek it out, “We Are Little Zombies” has a lot to offer. It’s a sorry tale of grief and loss (the video game levels it uses as its narrative infrastructure and the famous five stages of grief may or may not have something in common … ) that approaches its subject matter with thorough and exhaustive detail. Every shot, every scene, as erratically and eccentrically composed and executed as they are, is loaded with meaning and intention. And despite its dour beginnings, the film is not without mirth. The kids are sweet and their stoic devil-may-care attitude about life provides a number of laughs. And I wasn’t kidding when I said those songs are bangers.
Inaccessible and indulgent. Visually inventive and quirkily profound. Depending on taste, it teeters either way, like parmesan on a plate of Bolognese.
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.