APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: WE ARE LITTLE ZOMBIES (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Makoto Nagahisa

FEATURING: Keita Ninomiya, Sena Nakajima, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura

PLOT: After meeting at a funeral parlor, four emotionless orphaned children run away and form a pop band.

Still from We Are Little Zombies (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Carnivalesque pop-psychedelics enliven Nagahisa’s genre-bending tale of four emotion-deprived orphans wending their way through modern Japan. The final act, which sees the quartet piloting a stolen garbage truck into a black and white ocean of giant amoebas and pulsating anenomes before emerging for a (posthumous?) coda, gives it a chance of crashing our supplemental list of weird cinema.

COMMENTS: We Are Little Zombies takes its aesthetic inspiration from Nintendo NES video game systems: a chiptune-based theme song, 8-bit credits and bumpers. It’s structured as a series of challenges, with four orphans collecting four quest items (in four flashbacks), and with grief as the final boss. It wrings a surprising amount of depth from its short attention span style, and a surprising amount of empathy from its tale of children whose defining characteristic is that they have no emotions.

Little Zombies bursts with energy and ideas that vibrantly contrast with the enervated performances of its living dead heroes. Surreal touches sprout through the early reels, including a giant goldfish swimming outside an apartment window, a hobo orchestra, and a talk show hosted by a lime green centaur and co-hosted by an enthusiastic eyeball. The film features multiple, mostly upbeat musical numbers: not just the “Little Zombies” performances, but also improvised drunken karaoke lyrics about the comparative intellectual capacities of an octopus and a three-year-old. The luminous images and digressive fantasies imply a sense of wonder about life—one that the children are incapable of seeing and appreciating, even as it envelops them.

There is an open question of whether the kids are really emotional zombies, or whether they’re just temporarily numbed as a way to cope with tragedy. Before being accidentally emancipated, main character Hikari was a hōchigo, literally “left-alone child,” the Japanese analog to America’s “latchkey kid.” From his perspective, at least, mom and dad were more concerned with their careers and affairs than with raising their offspring. Brash kleptomaniac Ikuko was physically abused by his father and brother. Overweight Takemura, whose parents owned a restaurant, comes from a relatively normal background. Ishi, the only female in the quartet, has the most complex backstory: her mother calls her a femme fatale, and she draws creepy attention from older men. She’s victimized more by her sex than anything. There doesn’t appear to be much of a common thread generating the zombies’ juvenile anomie; and yet, it feels like Nagahisa is onto a real social issue, something he can diagnose but not cure. The only prescription he can offer is this rebellious declaration: “despair is uncool.”

We Are Little Zombies will be coming to select theaters (and online theaters) July 10. More details (and a Little Zombies digital coloring book) can be found at American distributor Oscilloscope’s official site. Seek it out when you have the chance.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a bizarre quasi-existential adventure about loss and grieving… a visual funhouse, full of surrealistic images…”–Monica Castillo, RogerEbert.com (festival screening)

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