Genre-busting ‘We Are Little Zombies’ Feels Like a Graphic Novel

by Nick Spacek on July 6, 2020

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Solid Rock Fist Up]

We Are Little Zombies (in virtual and live cinemas and on VOD July 10 from Oscilloscope Laboratories) is the feature film debut from writer/director Makoto Nagahisa, and it is a film which is simultaneously nihilistic, adorable, and emotionally touching. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, and the plot summary only touches the surface of what one can expect when first viewing the film.

“When four young orphans—Hikari, Ikuko, Ishi, and Takemura—first meet, their parents’ bodies are being turned into dust, like fine Parmesan atop a plate of spaghetti Bolognese, and yet none of them can shed a tear. They are like zombies; devoid of all emotion. With no family, no future, no dreams, and no way to move forward, the young teens decide that the first level of this new existence involves salvaging a gaming console, an old electric bass, and a charred wok from their former homes—just enough to start a band-and then conquer the world.”

Seeing the trailer and reading the summary, one would assume that in We Are Little Zombies, director Nagahisa had crafted a younger version of Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and given the 8-bit inspiration which suffuses the newer production, as compared to Wright’s 16-bit look, it’s not far off, especially given the scrappy music at the core of each.

However, We Are Little Zombies works because it refuses to play by the rules of any sort of genre, be it filmic, musical, or even videogame. Elements spill over from one form of media to another, with the opening titles playing out like the demo screen of a videogame, rendered entirely in sprites, while the musical performances are madcap, hallucinatory experiences with all the verve of Moulin Rouge. Each of the main characters even get their own Pulp Fiction-style flashback origin story.

Not for nothing are there 20 pages of press notes which go into detail regarding the production and those who made it. A lot of work went on behind the scenes of We Are Little Zombies to craft a film which feels very much like it was handmade. Because of this, nothing ever feels like it’s trite or hackneyed. The four kids who are the Zombies – Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) – never play to the camera, even when the camera is explicitly part of the filmic process.

Even when the Zombies are appearing on a television program, speaking directly to the camera, it’s as through they’d rather be somewhere else – likely within their own inner worlds. These four are kids for whom the world was already a weird place they wanted little to do with, even before their parents died. Alone, as orphans, they piece together a life from things they love and enjoy, which is perfectly childlike. There’s little thought given to practicality, but more to an id-like search for what’s fun. As director Nagahisa states, the world that appears in We Are Little Zombies is always meant to reflect Hikari’s imagination: “It doesn’t have to be consistent, but it definitely has to be fun.”

And the movie is fun. So much fun, really, that the two-hour running time seems to fly right by. It’s helped by the fact that the film is divided into 13 separate sections. While it’s the director once again again referencing classic video games, with their various stages, the division compartmentalizes each aspect of the whole plot as an easily digestible short story. In its entirety, We Are Little Zombies feels like a graphic novel collecting a series run of comics: you get an immensely-satisfying story arc, but each issue is fun on its own, as well.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and as Music Editor for The Pitch.

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