At the start of “We Are Little Zombies,” a madcap and prismatic new Japanese film by Makoto Nagahisa, the parents of four 13-year-olds have turned into dust.
That is, they’ve been cremated, and the four now-orphans, after meeting cute at the crematorium, must now consider what’s next. Definitely not mourning, they agree.
“Reality is too stupid to cry over,” says Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), our bespectacled, bullied, old-school-video-game-loving narrator.
None of these kids can weep for their parents. They are, as they say, little zombies.
They’re liberated zombies, at least. They’re now free from Hikari’s bullies, from the abusive father of Takemura (Mondo Okumura), from the broken, apathetic home life of overweight Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and from the resentful mother and the romantically predatory piano teacher of Ikuko (Sena Nakajima).
The kids are now free to visit and scavenge their former homes, stay a night in a love hotel, make joyless playgrounds of the abandoned spaces of Tokyo, and form a hit band. And as they do, their story swerves regularly into kaleidoscopic memory and fantasy sequences, the teens’ pasts and inner lives filtered through a flashing, beeping, hyper-pop aesthetic of videogames and cartoons.
So suffice it to say, your standard orphans-in-the-urban-wilderness fare “We Are Little Zombies” is not.
What the film is is deliciously uncategorizable, a familiar story tricked out and refracted in Nagahisa’s exuberant, daringly protean style.
It holds glints of Wes Anderson’s arch stylization and jaded whimsicality, and of Richard Linklater’s humanist coming-of-age stories (and his animation experiments). But Nagahisa’s vision is giddily its own, with its hyperactive videogame music and throwback eight-bit animation (a la Super Mario Bros.), its fizzy pop-culture asides in all the colors of the candy store, and its visual tropes of zombie films and lurid talk shows.
And all of this invention never seems to be there for its own sake, but rather as a savvy counterpoint to the kids’ emotionless ennui, and as a lens through which to more gently approach their traumas – as when we watch Hikari’s reverie of being rolled down a hill in a locker, landing in a field of acid-pink flowers, and emerging from his confinement as a vampire.
As the kids weave in and out of fantasy and reality, their details and dialogue are sharp, surprising, and perfectly pitched, a distilled poetry of disaffection.
Ikuko, who has been taking those piano lessons despite lacking a finger, is glad to be done with classical music. “It pretends to be pure,” she says, deadpan of course, “but is really a slut.” As the kids look listlessly at Mercedes and Jaguars, one boy says, about a hood ornament, “This is the only part of a car I’d ever want,” to which another responds, “I get that.”
Once their ad hoc band becomes a phenomenon, Nagahisa again makes much of the contrast between their pop star status and their whatever ethos. The peppy videogame-infused pop of their music and their astonishing stage costumes – styled in a sort of punk Muppet rococo, or as if they’ve been slathered high with birthday cake frostings – are in striking contrast to their high-pitched but steely young voices and their affectless faces as they sing about their dead parents and being little zombies.
“It’s OK to cry while you watch us,” says Ikuko, by way of stage patter. Then, without laughing: “Just kidding.”
So “We Are Little Zombies” manages to variously be a band film, a coming-of-age film, an urban fiction film, and a surrealist fantasy-horror-zombie film. Sometimes the kids are sitting around doing so little with such existentially doomed expressions – playing baseball in an empty warehouse and talking in monotones about eyesight – that it even feels like a French New Wave film. Somehow it all hangs together as more than a sum of these parts and in liberation from all of them.
And naturally, there are multiple fake-out false endings. Don’t be fooled; the longer the film goes on, the more clearly we can feel what lies at the heart of all this: Nagahisa’s deep compassion for these young people – and for anyone – who reckons with an emptiness.
So keep watching, sticking with these scrappy kids through to the real end. Or, in video game parlance, Continue.
Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.
Art at home and out
• Tiny heroes make big strides in the latest installment of the “colossal event of miniature proportions” that is the Virtual Toy Theater Festival, which in other times would be playing in-person at the puppet mecca of Mayo Street Arts. Watch this live-streamed performance by the artists of Great Small Works on Thursday, July 16, at 7:30 p.m., on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/GreatSmallWorks/vdeos.
• Wouldn’t it be nice to attend a literary reading in person again? And how about out in the open summer air? On July 16 in Monument Square, Maine author Jennifer Finney Boylan sits down with Richard Russo to discuss her book “Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs” – a memoir spanning young boyhood to middle-aged womanhood over the course of seven canine friends. More info on this Outdoor Spotlight Series program of the Portland Public Library at https://bit.ly/38P2qdI.
And believe it or not, theater will also be performed outside of your living room this summer:
• The beloved Celebration Barn of South Paris will present its inaugural 2020 production COVID-style on July 25, under the title “Just Outside the Window: A Drive-Thru Performance.” On July 25, internationally renowned circus, burlesque, and music performers will present five half-hour performances that audience experience from their automobiles. Visit CelebrationBarn.com.
• And the Camden Shakespeare Festival once again teams up with Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble to produce theater al fresco in the Camden Amphitheater. This year, on weekends from July 25-Aug. 30, they present not one of Shakespeare’s works but a more recent one, “Fafalo!”, whose storyline might feel eerily familiar right about now. Visit http://camdenshakespeare.org, and stay tuned for more details next week.
— Megan Grumbling