The Spool / Fantasia 2019
Fantasia 2019: In “We Are Little Zombies” Grief is the Final Boss
Makoto Nagahisa's wild video game flavored comedy about a group of jaded orphans is like nothing you've ever seen.
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Makoto Nagahisa’s wild video game flavored comedy about a group of jaded orphans is like nothing you’ve ever seen.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.)

For such a primal, universal emotion, most of us don’t have the first clue how to process grief, not our own, and definitely not anyone else’s. Oh, there are certain rules set in place — cry, but be sure to do it during an acceptable place and time, mourn privately, and move on and return to normal when everybody else tells you that you should. Makoto Nagahisa’s frenetic, dazzling We Are Little Zombies treats grief for its tween characters as an almost literal video game they must beat, with challenges, boss levels, and even save points. Though it’s overlong and occasionally leans a little too hard into candy-colored quirk, it’s funny and surprisingly touching take on a complicated subject for anyone, let alone adolescents.

Thirteen year-old Hikari’s parents have died suddenly, and he refuses to cry about it. Actually, it’s not a refusal so much as an inability — the only emotion Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) claims to feel is boredom, which he complains about often. “Reality is too stupid to cry over,” Hikari says, perplexing and frustrating the adults in his vicinity. Thankfully, outside the crematorium where his parents are being disposed of, he meets three other kids who get him. Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) have all lost their parents too, and greet it similarly to Hikari, with detachment and a bit of annoyance. 

All of them picked on by their classmates, they form their own little orphan clique, skipping school and refusing to conform to adults’ ideas of how they should behave in the face of tragedy. Curiously, their absence goes unnoticed, but one gets the sense that the relatives who’ve been tasked with taking care of them are relieved to leave them to their own devices. They say you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help someone else with theirs, but sometimes you’re just too tired and distracted to do either.

Inspired by a group of homeless people, the kids start a band, and a song they perform becomes a viral hit. Performing in costumes that look like they’re draped in garbage, the band, called Little Zombies, is a worldwide smash. Success is fleeting, however, and the only person who really benefits from it is the kids’ greedy, bullying manager, who demands that they don’t demonstrate any actual human feelings, because it’ll betray the cynical tone of their lyrics. After all, being emotional zombies is how they got famous in the first place. The kids quit performing and find themselves back where they started — adrift in the world, with no sense of place or family except each other. It’s a bleak reality that they combat with quirky dream sequences in which they go on missions and conquer their own enemies.

If you thought that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could have used a few middle school nihilists, then you’ll love We Are Little Zombies.

If you thought that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World could have used a few middle school nihilists, then you’ll love We Are Little Zombies. Marvelous visuals more than compensate for an occasionally meandering plot that goes on for probably twenty to thirty minutes longer than it really needs to. Nakahisa’s dedication to his young characters living in a sort of real world-video game co-existence is thorough and admirable, right down to the 8-bit music on the soundtrack. All it’s missing is random points for the kids to stop and drink a bottle of health restoration potion.

It’s a little heartbreaking that Hikari is young enough to daydream that a stop-motion tiger is stalking around at his parents’ funeral, yet is expected to deal with their loss on his own. His friends have even heavier burdens than that — Takemura’s late parents were abusive, while Ikuko, in addition to being put in the role as den mother/imaginary girlfriend for the group, must contend with the knowledge that her parents were murdered by her piano teacher, who was romantically obsessed with her. There’s no baring of the souls scene, this is all revealed in flashback. Nevertheless, perhaps knowing that the adults left in their lives aren’t equipped to help, they’re left to figure all this out by themselves.

In spite of all that, We Are Little Zombies is often very lighthearted, and unexpectedly moving, even if its protagonists would dismiss it as fake and boring. Spending a couple hours with a group of stone-faced, world-weary-at-13 kids is admittedly a hard sell, but then the movie goes and wins you over with their band performing a sweetly touching cover of a real-life song, the Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year,” sung in broken English while home movies of happier times with their parents run behind them. The home movies aren’t real, Hikari points out, but they’re convincing enough for him to almost feel something a little like love and sorrow, and that might be enough to get him through this.

We Are Little Zombies Trailer: