We Are Little Zombies

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

We Are Little Zombies
"Nagahisa...understands and embraces the complexity of early adolescence, when kids are finding their own way," | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Like a miniature version of Camus' Meursault, Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) fails to cry at his parents' funeral. "Reality is stupid," he says impatiently. They never paid him much attention anyway so he's no stranger to making his way through life alone. It's his good fortune that he will no longer have to do so, because that day, at the crematorium, he meets three other children who have recently been orphaned and they decide to run away together to have adventures.

Bold Takemura (Mondo Okumura) comes from a troubled background where he had plenty of ugliness to deal with before his parents' suicide, but also a punk older brother from whom he learned guitar. Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), possessed of a stare that could wither whole forests and with zero tolerance for the creepy adult attention it attracts, is a piano protege who relishes her newfound freedom. Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) is a wide-eyed, happy-go-lucky boy with a passion for eating but no sense of taste, along for the ride. All of them have met with concern and scorn from adults who have told them they have no emotions. They are little zombies, it seems, so in due course, that's the name they give to their band.

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Japan's tradition of alternative cinema is one of the most consistently interesting in the world and although this is Makoto Nagahisa's first feature it has strong roots. Its combination of sweetness, brusqueness and ebullient chaos is highly engaging and it is aimed at all ages, though not all adults will have the energy to stay the course. Indeed, it's overlong, and its episodic structure (sometimes further parenthesised) makes its pacing issues worse, but there's so much going on and the young stars' performances are so well judged that you'll still find it difficult to look away.

You'll have an advantage if you already have some familiarity with Japanese culture - everything from the absurd price of strawberries to the bizarre world of children's TV (which, let's face it, is pretty strange in the UK too). The kids' stage gear, made from reclaimed garbage, looks as if a sweet shop exploded in Harajuku, and of course there's plentiful use of neon, whilst the music itself is bright and sugary. In other places, however, Nagahisa shows a willingness to take on very dark subjects. What stands out, overall, is the way that he understands and embraces the complexity of early adolescence, when kids are finding their own way, making sense of their own emotions, and have a cynicism about the adult world that is not by any means unreasonable. They are creating their own world, their own future, their own reality.

Leaping from one apparent non-sequitur to the next, the film builds up that reality piece by piece, mixing low expectations and high hopes, celebrating resilience and showing a keen awareness of the ridiculous. It's rich in absurdity but sometimes what feel like throwaway moments turn out to be significant and overall very little is wasted. Sharply observant and delightfully witty, it's also full of the rush of throwing oneself headlong into life with no idea where one will end up. Hikari loves video games and often they provide his only guide. Can he successfully jump to the next platform? Will he be able to defeat (or even identify) the end of level boss? You won't want to stop playing.

Reviewed on: 05 Jul 2020
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We Are Little Zombies packshot
Their parents are dead. They should be sad, but they can't cry. So they form a kick-ass band. This is the story of four 13-year-olds in search of their emotions.

Director: Makoto Nagahisa

Writer: Makoto Nagahisa

Starring: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima

Year: 2019

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Japan


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