Young people in Japanese and Korean indies often evince a distinct cognitive dissonance, purposely rubbing against the stereotype of the good son or daughter in the Confucian tradition. Those of us who are not Japanese or Korean may feel cut off: Adolescent disaffection is universal and perhaps more acute in a social milieu that distinctly places greater value on family cohesion, but there’s usually the feeling that the filmmaker is trying to make their point by exaggerating certain attributes. Hikari, the narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s debut feature, is a 13-year old video game addict who has just lost both parents in a bus accident and feels nothing. Actually, scratch that. He betrays some relief, because he obviously didn’t love his parents, and the sentiment may have been mutual—to call Hikari an unreliable narrator would be an understatement.
Hikari isn’t being cynical. He’s still too young to have cultivated a sense of the world, but he knows his feelings or lack thereof, which is credible in its own way. However, Nagahisa compounds the disaffection by bringing Hikari together with three other 13-year-olds who have also lost both parents, and at the same funeral parlor on the same day. Again, all seem underwhelmed by their loss, and recognize that there is perhaps something wrong with that, but since they’re still kids they are now free to do whatever they want. The fantastical elements of Nagahisa’s narrative go beyond this unbelievable coincidence. There seems to be no serious guardianship issues at play, and the four flit freely from one home to another indulging their childish whims and philosophizing about the total moral bankruptcy of adulthood. There’s nothing malicious in their attitude, and if Nagahisa gets anything precisely right about their youthful lark it’s that they understand how their peculiar situation allows them to put off responsibility for as long as possible.
The kicker comes when they visit a refuse facility and encounter a group of homeless individuals who inspire them to form a rock band, which becomes a viral hit. Now you can chalk the movie’s sensibility up to cynicism, though it’s Nagahisa’s rather than the kids’. It helps to understand that the director used to work for advertising behemoth Dentsu, so he certainly knows the ins and outs of the BIG CON. Inevitably, the Little Zombies’ relative success indirectly helps them achieve an emotional maturity that provides the movie with the kind of sentimental closure we normally expect from Japanese indies.
All of this would be fairly conventional if not for the structure and the production design, which references computer game visuals and logic (it seems to be the only way Hikari could tell a story), not to mention the manic pacing, propelled by editing on steroids. We Are Little Zombies makes its point effectively enough, but its exhaustive insistence on being emotionally dry until the point when it isn’t still feels manipulative.
In Japanese. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).
We Are Little Zombies home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 “We Are Little Zombies” Film Partners