Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies is an emotionally invigorating film about four profoundly emotionless children. Hikari, Takemura, Ishi, and Ikuko meet at a crematorium during their parents’ funeral. They find solace because neither of them can cry despite becoming orphans. Their stoicism sometimes borders on sociopathy, and you wonder if these kids can feel anything at all. They’re frequently berated by adults and called “sick in the head” or deranged simply because they won’t react the way the adults want them to react.
Video games have repeatedly been used as a way to process grief—especially with children. Nagahisa turns his film into a real video game, complete with 8-bit scenes, significant items, and a chiptunes score that is straight out of the NES days.
And just like a video game, our heroes have tragic backstories that they must re-visit to complete their quest. And with significant items from their past, these children form the band, “We are Little Zombies,” and immediately shoot up to stardom. But just as their parents controlled their life, new adults are also trying to tell them how to look and act in front of their adoring fans.
Admittedly, the plot-line surrounding the band feels a little jarring because it’s such a sharp transition from tragic dramedy to celebrity satire. Nagahisa’s priorities seem to shift to creating power ballads that seem to take away from the overarching plot-line. While the songs are catchy and fun, it’s the more simple moments that are more compelling. Hikari’s view of his parents who showed complete indifference to each other; Ishi’s conversation with his father who is trying to do well by his son despite having a flawed outlook on relationships; Takemura trying to fight his abusive father; Ikuko’s father being relieved that his daughter was bullying others instead of being bullied.
Nagahisa’s treatment of Ikuko is impressive, especially in a world that sees girls as sexually submissive and pliant. Ikuko is the antithesis of the stereotypical Japanese schoolgirl and rejects the boys’ crushes and actively makes fun of them for even thinking of liking her. At one point in the film, all three boys look at her and say that she looks like their mother, tears in their eyes. In response, she rolls her eyes and makes it clear she’s not the healer of their video game adventure (not that there’s anything wrong with being a healer).
It’s easy to compare We Are Little Zombies to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, but Nagahisa’s tender character study has so much more going for it than Wright’s mostly shallow —albeit fun— romp. Yes, the kids do have to find a way to overcome this tragic time in their life, but they never have to become “adults” for this discovery to happen. They are never exploited for shock value—which is impressive considering that Ikuko’s storyline revolves around a creepy piano teacher. Nagahisa’s eclectic debut doesn’t talk down to these kids at all; it lets them approach grief the way they want to—whether it’s through starting a band or stealing a garbage truck.