“Reality is too stupid to cry,” says 12-year-old Hikari, a bespectacled, socially awkward video-game addict who has just lost his parents in a bus accident. The four leads of We Are Little Zombies, Japanese filmmaker Makoto Nagahisa’s riotous debut feature, are united by their disconnect in the face of cataclysmic personal tragedy, but to hear them speak about it doesn’t sound too far off from the modern-day ennui of anyone who keeps up with current events. A rainbow-colored scream into the abyss, Nagahisa’s story of a quartet of orphaned tweens who start a chiptune rock band is as rigorous in its exploration of grief as it is stylistically exuberant, and one of the most exciting premieres at Sundance this year.
Hikari, Ikuko, Ishi, and Takemura meet on a beautiful, sunny day outside a crematorium as their deceased parents’ bodies are burning. They take to each other the way children often do when forced to share a space, instantly swapping stories and taunting one another, and they find they all share an inability to cry in the face of their circumstances. United by their disdain for their late parents, the adults that expect them to grieve a certain way, and society at large, they band together as a support group of sorts, skipping school and wandering around to each of their former homes and trying to find a way forward in their own lives.
Over the course of the film, we get each of their backstories — tales of neglect, loneliness, and abuse, parents who try to be good, parents who don’t. But the sensibility through which we see the stories is video-game-addled Hikari’s, and the film takes on the structure of a Super Nintendo RPG, each chapter of the story a “stage” to pass through, with objects to retrieve and bosses to vanquish. Occasionally Nagahisa’s camera glides over the action from a bird’s-eye view, following the kids as they wander the apartment courtyards and suburban streets like Zelda-esque sprites. Each new space and environment they navigate — an abandoned apartment, a convenience store, a punk band’s dilapidated practice space — becomes its own kind of character, with its own visual identity and shooting style.
All these affectations are beyond charming, but they would come off as mere showoff moves without emotional grounding — and We Are Little Zombies, despite being a “story of four unemotional people,” is dense with ideas about how, why, and when we feel and display our emotions, particularly while grieving. About midway through the film, the kids, not having a place to live, discover a homeless encampment where the residents have created a “garbage band.” Inspired by their ability to channel their misfortune into something cathartic, the kids follow suit and become the Little Zombies, grabbing an online influencer off the street to shoot their first “music video” and share it with his followers.
And so the second of the film’s two halves follows the band as they become a viral sensation, and tracks the strange reverse logic of how their nihilistic lyrics and deadpan delivery somehow become embraced as “SO EMO!!!” by legions of tween fans. The whiplash between the interiority of private grieving, even among friends, and lucrative public displays of emotion generates plenty of madcap comedy, but also adds another intellectual layer to Nagahisa’s overflowing parfait of ideas. The film becomes more over-the-top than ever, but you start longing for that emotional catharsis, for the kids to be set free from their delayed emotional reactions. (You also start checking your watch a bit — Zombies runs a tad long, and even though it never stops moving, it does feel like it could use an edit.)
There’s a fake-out ending to We Are Little Zombies during which many audience members at my screening walked out — hilariously, as it occurs at the film’s pitch-black nadir. (Those people who walked out saw a movie whose last line ended with the words “my life is shit” in voice-over as all four characters sink to a watery grave.) But after the faux credits roll, Nagahisa is able to find some redemption and forgiveness, even after scorching so much earth. It’s a pretty remarkable 180, even more remarkable that it feels earned. (There are also some pretty great jabs from Ikuko at the expectations of “the girl” character in a kid’s quest movie like this.) The film sends you out bopping along to the Little Zombies’ adorable four-on-the-floor dance-rock theme song, but also feeling as if you’ve been on a tough, honest-to-goodness journey of personal growth.
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