Blissful, whacked-out, inspired, juvenile, dementedly inventive, hyper-energized — all of this and more apply to music video and advertising whiz Makoto Nagahisa’s first feature We Are Little Zombies. Winner of Sundance’s short film grand jury prize two years ago with And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool, Nagahisa is never at a loss for a gag, fresh idea or some impudent action on the part of one of his four 13-year-old protagonists, all of whom have just lost their parents. From this start, an irreverent, adrenaline-fueled journey begins while announcing a singular talent, whose debut, at 120 minutes, is compromised by being at least 20 minutes too long.
Romantic comedies often start with what’s called a meet-cute; this mordant Japanese take on pubescent alienation and zoned-outness begins with a meet-grim — the four bereaved kids encounter one another as their parents’ mixed remains belch forth from a smokestack at their cremation. Hikaro, the ostensible narrator, lost his parents in a bus accident; the others — Ikuku, Ishi and Takemura — by murder, suicide and explosion. What the four share is an inability to cry or feel much of anything over their losses. “Reality is too stupid to cry over,” one says. All lonely children to begin with, they now retreat into video games and zone out — but together.
A bit too much of a good thing.
This may be a tragedy, but it’s played for exuberance and zany laughs, like an early Richard Lester film on speed. Living at first in the irreality zone of one family’s apartment, the kids make absurdist comments like, “An octopus is as smart as a 3-year-old,” “We can’t hear your internal monologue” and, “As I ran, I thought about the theory of relativity”; when one of them says, “I think I’ve gone colorblind,” the film switches to black-and-white. But their individual and collective voids are informed and charged largely by videogame pacing and an equivalent absence of emotional depth, so what else is there to do but to form a rock band, which they call Little Zombies. When they make a music video, it becomes a viral sensation.
Exuberance and visual inventiveness seem to come to Nagahisa as naturally as breathing, and an impudent wit serves as a consistent counterpoint to the teens’ dour, zoned-out personalities. The big question hanging over the four kids as if in a comic book quotation bubble would be, “Is life worth living or not?” Their attitude toward the question could not be more blasé or indifferent and yet, when things get tough, they keep plowing ahead, which can only be their answer.
After a while, one might begin to wonder if Nagahisa’s imagination and energy can ever decelerate into a lower gear, and the answer is no. From the evidence of his film, he’s always switched on, ideas popping out of him like baseballs from a pitching machine at high speed. The downside is that this proves exhausting — at two hours, it’s decidedly too much of a good thing. Even when the film appears to be over, it’s not, and it’s highly advisable to stay to the very, very end.
Production company: Nikkatsu
With: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima
Director-screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa
Producers: Taihei Yamanishi, Shinichi Takahashi, Haruki Yokoyama, Haruhiko Hasegawa
Director of photography: Hiroaki Takeda
Production designer: Yukiko Kuribayashi
Wardrobe: Satsuki Shimoyama
Editor: Maho Inamoto
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)