We Are Little Zombies, screening at Fantasia International Film Festival after its Sundance premiere, marks an incredibly successful feature film debut by writer and director Makoto Nagahisa. Combining the nostalgia and storytelling of 8-bit video games with the vibrancy and sensationalism of modern pop stars, to create a colorful and original ride for its viewers. Nagahisa’s unique voice rings loud and clear through sharp writing and music that will be stuck in your head long after the credits have rolled. We Are Little Zombies takes on the daunting task of engaging with the heaviness of children coping with tragedy, yet succeeds in finding a balance between the humorous and painful process. In doing so, it embraces the humor that can be found even in grief and grapples with the challenges of growing up in a world that is seemingly apathetic about you. unless you have something to offer it.
We Are Little Zombies tells the story of four children, all of whom are 13 years of age, whose parents have all recently died in accidents of varying absurdity. These children all meet at the crematorium shortly after the deaths and discuss their mutual traumas. They tell each other how each tragedy occurred with what feels like inappropriate flippancy: Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents died in a bus crash, Ikuko’s (Sena Nakajima) parents were murdered, Takemura’s (Mondo Okumura) abusive parents both committed suicide, and Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) lost his parents to a cooking-related explosion. Despite the solemnity of the circumstances, they all share the same emotionless outlook upon the tragedies they have undergone. They don’t cry, they don’t feel sad, they simply accept the reality with which they have been presented: they are self-proclaimed “little zombies”.
The film follows the four children as they try to navigate their lives post-tragedy and in search of missing their missing emotions. With little money and no adult supervision, they skip school and wander through the city, exploring where they used to live until they decide to form a band dedicated to their inability to feel emotions. The four gather the necessary instruments, find someone with a camera, and begin to film their first music video, titled “We Are Little Zombies”. Overnight, they become a viral internet sensation and leap into stardom, known as the band “Little Zombies”. They are suddenly in the spotlight and garnering attention from news outlets, the music industry, and people from their old lives. The resulting fame is tumultuous and overwhelming for the young teens, and they struggle to navigate their stardom.
The film focuses specifically on Hikari, who spends much of his time playing handheld video games and narrates the story. The only way he is able to cope with the experiences is through envisioning his life as a video game: he believes he is searching for his “final boss”, a person he must overcome. Throughout the film, however, he grows to understand that his final boss is not quite so cut and dry. Perhaps it is not even a person, but rather the state of emotional indifference in which he has been living for so long. The emphasis on found family is quite profound, as when Hikari feels as though he is at his lowest moment, it is through the help of his newfound friends that he is able to continue on. Through all of their struggles against death, against adults in their life who don’t have their best interests at heart, and against apathy; the one thing they have consistently held on to is each other.
To balance such genuine connection with the dark, satirical humor with which We Are Little Zombies is full of is not an easy task, yet Nagahisa sticks the landing with a wonderfully bittersweet ending about the impermanence of apathy and suffering. From beginning to end, it is an over the top and surreal look into the grief and loss of childhood. At times, it can feel almost overwhelming, yet it is at those moments where the children share a quiet, tender moment that stands as a breath of fresh air. Ultimately, We Are Little Zombies is a journey into personal growth that will leave you feeling as if you grew alongside the characters. Its originality and authenticity will certainly have you thinking about it for days after and, like me, looking forward to seeing what Nagahisa does next.