Forget the ominous shots of graveyards, the horror, gore, and entrails that a zombie movie typically entails. Despite its biting title, We Are Little Zombies isn't a terrifying tale of the walking dead or a dangerous virus wiping out humanity. Instead, it's an idiosyncratic coming-of-age tale about four Japanese orphans who feel numb to the deaths of their respective parents. Feeling dead inside, they form a band of "little zombies," and go viral when their titular anthem of apathy hits the airways. So, in a metaphorical sense, this is a zombie movie. But chiefly, it's a weird and wonderful adventure about how video games provided the key to a seemingly desensitized boy unlocking his true feelings.
Written and directed by Makoto Nagahisa, We Are Little Zombies centers on Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), a schoolboy who can't bring himself to cry when his parents are killed in a bus accident. While others at their funeral wail and twist their faces into tremendous expressions of grief, his face is as placid as a lake. The same is true of the three other orphans he meets while waiting for their parents' corpses to be incinerated at the crematorium. As the smoke billows above them out of a giant chimney stack, there's a moment of shock when this quirky quartet realizes they have no parents to go home to, then a burst of celebration, because no parents means no rules! While We Are Little Zombies unfurls backstories that include poverty, abuse, suicide, murder, and a pedophilic piano teacher, its tone is kept light by an irreverent wit combined with a distinctive visual style that turns even the most disturbing elements playful.
Beneath their stoic exteriors, these kids are, of course, grappling with trauma in whatever way they can. For Hikari, that means seeing his emotional journey as a video game's quest. A lonely and introverted boy, his parents gave him video games for company. Some might suggest this intense exposure to video games has desensitized the boy or fractured his grip on reality. But by putting We Are Little Zombies in Hikari's video game-obsessed viewpoint, Nagahisa explores how these games encourage the child's imagination and provide a crucial tool for coping.
The visuals of We Are Little Zombies are born of the 8-bit video games of the '70s and '80s. In voice-over, Hikari welcomes us to the prologue, where a pixelated title card appears that translates to 'Why I couldn’t cry at my parent's funeral.' The sound effects that accompany it sound like the tinny explosions of Space Invaders. There will be title cards throughout, serving not as chapter titles but as the introduction of "stages" of Hikari's game. When the title card of We Are Little Zombies appears, a flourish of music that seems plucked from the early days of Nintendo blares and a "start" icon flashes invitingly. It's as if the viewer is hitting a button to play along.
Next comes an animated sequence that transforms our orphans into 8-bit heroes traversing levels of tombstones, TVs, stairwells, flaming houses, and increasingly surreal scenarios. Then, their real adventure begins. Back to live-action, the zombies must acquire tokens from their old homes without being captured by any concerned grown-ups. As the four children wind their way around town, aerial shots of their journey recall Nintendo's original Legend of Zelda. When they each snatch a personal token (a Game Boy-like device, a bass guitar, a wok) a video-game sound effect chimes, celebrating the acquiring of a special item. The film's soundscape is littered with sound effects like this, giving Hikari's world an element of fantasy he needs to keep grim reality at arm's length. Similarly, the soundtrack is alive with the tinny electronic tunes reminiscent of early arcade games. This is the world where Hikari feels comfortable, and by finding a party who plays along, he finds a community to help him heal.
With the quest of attaining the special items achieved, the foursome forms a rock band. Each token is tied to their parents' tragedy, and each gives them a way to sing out about it. Hikari's Game Boy provides the chirpy base beats as he sings. Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), whose parents died in a restaurant fire, bangs their wok like a drum. Takemura (Mondo Okumura), whose last moments with his abusive father were scored by his older brother's band, plays a stolen bass, while Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) uses the piano skills taught to her by the aforementioned creeper/teacher. With pain and special items combined, they let loose the title track, "We Are Little Zombies." Though most of it is in Japanese, the chorus is in English, and devastatingly catchy. It'll get stuck in your head like the theme to Super Mario Bros., popping up when you least expect it and playing on a loop for days afterward. So, it's little wonder that the zombies' song becomes a big hit within the world of the film, launching them to stardom and chasing them into strange scenarios like Harajuku makeovers, zany talk shows, and intrusive press interviews.
It's during an interview that Hikari expresses the most emotion about his parents' demise. Though his tone is still flat, his eyes still blank, his words reveal the great ache that swells beneath the surface. Asked what he'd do if he met the bus driver responsible for his parents' deaths, he confesses he craves vengeance, noting, "He's the End of Level Boss in the game of my life." But We Are Little Zombies is not setting us up for a showdown between a traumatized boy and an unfortunate bus driver. Instead, Hikari and his bandmates will break the rules of grown-ups again, for one final quest that they hope will win them closure.
In the penultimate stage, "Zombie Station," the kids laugh as they sprint through a train station, ducking guardians and dodging the mass of commuters who shuffle slowly as they stare at their phones. It makes for silly fun, but this sequence also shows how the kids have already grown. They are no longer the zombies of this movie. They feel love for each other and amusement at the droning grown-ups who sleepwalk through their lives. But in the final stage, Hikari must face what he's lost. There will be no fights to win. No Boss to defeat. No party members to hide behind. Hikari must face his feelings himself. And in doing so, provides a life lesson — or cheat code — for the rest of us who might fear emotions: The only way to win is to play the game. The only way out is through.
All in all, We Are Little Zombies is trippy and nostalgic adventure that mashes up faint elements of zombie horror with old-school video game tropes, then weaves both into a uniquely poignant coming-of-age story. While the little zombies claim to feel nothing, we feel for them. We root for them. And we sing along to their song, because who amongst us hasn't felt a little zombie sometimes?
We Are Little Zombies made its Canadian premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival.