In some other timeline, we’re out enjoying a real Chicago summer, complete with street fairs and beach days and rooftop drinks and yes, summer blockbuster movies. Instead, this summer will go down as one without superheroes, one without the latest in a franchise or the start of a new one. That doesn’t mean there isn’t joy to be had at the movies, and a new virtual cinema release from Japan might be just the jolt of existential optimism we didn’t know we needed during these trying times. At first pass, We Are Little Zombies is a macabre, dark comedy about four newly orphaned teenagers who’ve given up on life ever having any meaning or ever being loved. Stylized to the hilt like the 8-bit video games protagonist Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) plays obsessively, this colorful, fast-paced story about grief, loss and friendship is sure to be an unexpected and welcome treat in your at-home viewing plans.
The Little Zombies are Hikari and his three friends, Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno) and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), teens who meet on the somber occasion of their parents’ funerals. After four different tragic circumstances result in the deaths of each of their parents, they all find themselves sneaking out back of the crematorium where they’re saying their final goodbyes to their loved ones. A portable game always in hand, Hikari insists over and over—to us and his new friends—that he has no emotions, that even when he got the news that his parents died in a freak bus accident, he didn’t cry a single tear. We learn the similar sad stories of Takemura, Ishi and Ikuko, each bullied or ignored or otherwise having pulled the short stick in life. Together, the four bond over their shared traumas, even as they insist to each other that they’re fine.
What follows is a wild and weird series of events that would never work in a film that relied on a more traditional execution: this happens, then that happens, then this happens. Thankfully, writer/director Makoto Nagahisa decides to have more fun piecing together this foursome’s story than we have any right to expect or deserve. From Hikari’s extended prologue that sets the scene for the rest of the film to the video-game like sequences, title cards and framing to the musical numbers (yes! musical numbers!) that are as impressive as they are touching, Nagahisa delivers a truly singular piece of art that’s only elevated by the poignancy of its themes.
At a solid two hours long, We Are Little Zombies doesn’t waste a single moment, taking us on unexpected twists and turns through fun-house like visuals and warp-speed dialogue. The four teens deliver too-cool-for-school performances, each of them forced to grow up before their time—though their real vulnerabilities are evident just beneath the surface. As they navigate their new adventures together, from forming a band to sing about their odd circumstances in life to going in search of the spot where Hikari’s parents were in that bus accident, they lean on each other in subtle but significant ways. Every step of the way is a “level” in the game (of life?), and at each new experience, one of the four has to step up or speak up to keep the Zombies on track and together. Much as they protest it, given all they’ve seen and endured in their young lives, these four teens are still very much alive—and very connected to each other.
For most of We Are Little Zombies, Nagahisa leans into the despair of life. People aren’t nice. People aren’t dependable. People leave us, temporarily or for good. Nothing is worth the effort. Nothing fills that empty part of us that is waiting to be loved. So when the film actually becomes something quite joyful, something that reminds us that even in despair there is a glimmer of light to find one’s way back, it feels something like an act of rebellion. Things are bad, sure. They can always get worse, too. But with friends to look out for us, an appropriately skeptical outlook on life and a willingness to at least play the game, things can always get better.