September 19, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Makoto Nagahisa
Japanese with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, the dark comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” has an all-Japanese cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.
Culture Clash: A group of four teenage orphans who resist adult supervision become unlikely pop stars and navigate the pitfalls and fickleness of fame.
Culture Audience: “We Are Little Zombies” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse films with a quirky sense of humor.
The comedy/drama “We Are Little Zombies” (written and directed by Makato Nagahisa) takes the movie cliché of orphans being pitiful and desperate for love, and blows up that narrative with this concept: “What if there are orphans who aren’t really sad that their parents are dead?” “We Are Little Zombies” gets its title because the four 13-year-old orphans at the center of the story feel like emotional zombies. It’s a zany movie filmed with a lot of artistic and kitschy flair, but it’s not recommended for people who like to see conventional storytelling in a film.
Who are these four orphans? And exactly why do they have so much apathy about their parents’ deaths? It’s because the kids didn’t feel like their parents really loved them. All four of the orphans seemed to have met at an orphanage, where they quickly bonded with each other. When they ask a yard worker outside to take a group photo of them, he says, “Smile, everyone. Cheer up. You look like zombies.” And so, the nickname sticks.
The leader of this group of orphans is bespectacled Hikari Takami (played by Keita Ninomiya), who is also the narrator of the story. Hikari’s parents died on a tour bus owned by a company called Super Wild Coach Tours, which has a slogan like “Destination: Happiness” and takes people on trips like an All You Can Eat Strawberries tour. Hikari, who felt neglected by his parents, deadpans in the narration that it’s “the worst-named package tour of all time. So much for happiness. They went straight to hell.”
Yuki Takemura (played by Mondo Okumura) was raised by a single dad, who committed suicide. Yuki is the only one of the four orphans who has siblings. After their father’s death, the siblings were split up and put in separate foster homes. It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki was physically abused by his father. Yuki also has an older brother who’s an aspiring punk musician who would practice with his band in the family’s garage and typically treated Yuki as a nuisance if Yuki tried to watch the band perform.
Ikuko Ibu (played by Sena Nakajima) also felt unloved by her parents, who were murdered. (It’s mentioned later in the movie that the murder suspect was apprehended, but there’s no mention of what happened to this suspect.) It’s shown in flashbacks that Yuki had a strange relationship with her parents because Ikuko’s father Haruhiko (played by Masatoshi Nagase) appeared to have incestuous thoughts about her. Ikuko’s mother, also named Ikuko (played by Rinko Kikuchi), resented her to point where she called her daughter Ikuko a “femme fatale” and accused Ikuko of having a strange effect on people.
Ishi (played by Satoshi Mizuno) felt disconnected from his parents because they worked so much. His parents owned and operated a restaurant, which didn’t leave much time for them to give Ishi attention. His parents died in a gas explosion at the restaurant. Ishi’s reaction is relief because he knows he won’t have to spend long hours working at the restaurant, as he was expected to do when he got older.
Because Hikari is the narrator, “We Are Little Zombies” spends the most time showing how he dealt with his parents’ death. At the funeral, where none of the adults spoke to Hikari, he can’t cry. He says in a voiceover, “Reality is too stupid to cry over. I’m not sad … A funeral … is five times more boring than history class.”
Hikari continues in saying that he can’t remember the warm touch of his parents because “I was never loved … Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.” And Hikari says in a voiceover: “While the bodies are being cremated, please enjoy some phantom piano.” And then some piano music plays. It’s one of the movie’s many quirks.
Throughout the movie, there are many artistic touches that are reminiscent of 1980s video games. Scenes are framed as if they are part of videogame sequences. There are bright neon colors and florescent lighting. And the movie’s original music (also by Nagahisha) sounds like it came straight from a 1980s videogame from Sega or Nintendo.
The movie’s cinematography (by Hiroaki Takeda) is similar to going on a ride in an amusement park, since the camera dips at odd angles and sometimes bounces around at an almost-dizzying pace. There are a few scenes that involve live fish being taken out and put back in water, and the camera sometimes gives a fish-eye view of what’s happening.
And the movie also contrasts the colorful scenes with stark interiors that have neutral colors. The scenes with muted colors are usually when there are parental or authority figures who try to oppress the kids. It’s an obvious metaphor for how drab and dull they think life can be under adult supervision and how much more vibrant their lives are when they’re free to be on their own.
Despite these seemingly whimsical motifs in the movie, there are also some dark themes of childhood neglect and abuse. Ikuko’s father tells her that if he were younger, he would want to marry her. She tries to shrug off this creepy comment by saying that she can’t get married because her ring finger is missing. (It’s true. The ring finger on her left hand is missing.) Meanwhile, Ikuko says in a voiceover, “Mom once told me that she wished I didn’t exist.”
Ishi has had insecurities over whether he was a wanted child because his father once told him that the only reason why he married Ishi’s mother was because she was pregnant. Hikari’s father was a womanizer, and the infidelity caused a lot of pain in his marriage and family. In a voiceover, Hikari says that he knows that his father was well-loved by a lot of people, but Hikari wonders if his father ever loved him.
In one of the dark humor scenes of the movie, the pregnant mistress of Hikari’s father calls the house shortly after the funeral. She doesn’t know that Hikari’s parents have died. And so, when Hikari answers the phone, he nonchalantly tells her the bad news. She is heard wailing in grief on the other line before Hikari calmly hangs up the phone.
The four orphans are sent to various homes but are unhappy there. They rebel by trying to run away or by trying to skip school. During all of this youthful rebellion, the orphans end up on the streets with some homeless people. And there’s a wacky musical interlude where the homeless people break out in a banjo-playing song.
This musical experience inspires the four orphans to form an electro-pop band called Little Zombies. Hikari is the lead singer, Yuki is the guitarist, Ikuko is the keyboardist, and Ishi is the drummer. They make a music video of themselves called “We Are Little Zombies,” a song that is insanely catchy and is very memorable, long after you see the movie. The orphans put the video on the Internet and think not many people will see it.
Instead, the video goes viral and catches the attention of editors of a major magazine, which does a big article about the orphans. The article leads to more media attention. And before you know it, Little Zombies are very famous. As Hikari explains, “We went from being poor zombies to glamorous rock stars.” The kids in the band go from wearing school uniforms as stage outfits to clothing that was designed so they could look like steam-punk-inspired, edgy artists who made their clothes out of garbage.
The kids soon find that after they become famous, people at home and at school who used to ignore or bully them now want to be their best friends. The orphans also become targets of greedy adults who want to exploit the band’s sudden fame to make money for themselves. And the band has an obsessive fan base on social media. The movie has biting commentary on what fame can do to people, particularly people who are still children, and how celebrity obsessions can take a very dark turn.
Underneath all the goofy hijinks is a message that people can’t really find love through fame and public adoration. If the four Little Zombies thought that they would be happy as pop stars, they learn some harsh life lessons along the way. “We Are Little Zombies” drags a little too long (the total running time is two hours), but there’s enough originality and compelling visuals in the movie for people to be interested in finding out what happens to these emotionally jaded kids who aren’t as tough as they might think they are.
Oscilloscope Laboratories released “We Are Little Zombies” in select U.S. cinemas on July 10, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 8, 2020.