Because it has been around for just a little bit, saying something about death in a new way is kinda hard. Fact check me, but I’m pretty sure We Are Little Zombies is the first time grief has been processed through a hallucinatory, 8-bit RPG and trash-glam-punk-rock musical.
Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa’s cinematic riot is nonchalantly profound and effortlessly energetic. Overly stylistic filmmaking often feels counterintuitively boring and substantively empty, like eating cotton candy with chocolate syrup for dinner every night. We get it, you’re quirky, now eat a vegetable. We Are Little Zombies brilliantly welds its style to its substance. Its jarring and hyperkinetic approach simulates the disorienting emotional tumbler that is coping with death. Oh, and it’s somehow really funny and almost painfully cool.
Four teenaged orphans meet at a crematorium, instantly bonded in their dry-eyed response to impossible tragedy. Within minutes, they’re friends. Within hours, they’re a family. Within days, they’re a celebrated punk band that dresses like they swam laps in Lady Gaga’s dumpster. The whole time, they are each working through dense, awful stuff. Like, seriously dense and awful…
For this recap of horrifying child trauma, please remember that the film never—not for a single moment—veers into the melancholy, constantly blasting 8-bit videogame sounds and music or rabid punk noise while bursting a neon-hued visual pinata.
Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) is a bullied loner whose adulterous dad and distant mom died in a tour bus accident. Sinpachi (Satoshi Mizuno), the son of restaurant owners, loses his sense of taste after his parents die in a grease fire that he thinks he should have also died in. Those are the not-so-bad backstories, comparatively…
Yuki (Mondo Okumura) was grotesquely abused before both his mother and father died by suicide. Meanwhile, Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), found her parents murdered by her piano teacher, who was obsessed with her. Super-fun-happy times, huh?
Miraculously and without any disrespect, Nagahisa gleefully navigates a choppy sea of emotional and physical brutality, charting a cathartic course unlike any other. From big sequences, like the Little Zombies’ concert performances, to subtle symbolism, like Ikuko’s rejection of male gaze/ownership manifesting as a literal missing “ring finger,” the movie is as carefully considered as it is seemingly chaotic. At no point does it feel like Nagahisa is quirking for quirk’s sake. It’s all purposeful.
That purpose is both a testimony to the resilience and bravery of young people and an argument that we must allow victims to process trauma on their own terms, in their own ways, even if those approaches don’t adhere to how we feel they should behave.
Grief and trauma hangs thick in the air these days, a relentless fog of death, abuse, and inequality. We Are Little Zombies isn’t a how-to manual for dealing with, you know, all of that so much as it is a playful, near-genius glimpse at young people making a way forward in a world that doesn’t make sense anymore. It is an announcement that Nagahisa is a major, major talent. It is a definitive statement about art and empathy. It is the best movie I’ve seen so far this crazy, awful year.
Grade = A+
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Danielle Solzman of Solzy at the Movies celebrates the film’s uniqueness and argues it legally can be considered a musical.
Robert Daniels of 812 Film Reviews has maybe the best one line summary, calling it “an ode to cynical grief, an apology for those who don’t cry at funerals, and a damn fun time.”
Alexandra Heller-Nichols says the film is “an 8-bit empathy theme park,” which is just another impossibly good description.
Kristy Puchko of SyFyWire actually takes a look at the zombie aspects of We Are Little Zombies.