No pulsating, psychedelic, pop-punk phantasmagoria ought to be as moving and smart as “We Are Little Zombies.” But Makoto Nagahisa’s explosively ingenious and energetic debut (imagine it as the spiritual offspring of Richard Lester and a Harajuku Girl) holds the high score for visual and narrative invention, as well as boasting [insert gigantic-beating-heart GIF] and braaaains, too. The gonzo adventures of four poker-faced Japanese 13-year-olds who bond over their mutual lack of emotion following sudden orphanhood, it reimagines the old “stages of grief” thing as a progression through 13 erratic levels of a video game, complete with mini-games and side quests. And if its manic, 8-bit aesthetic seems hyperactively inappropriate for such a somber scenario — like it does grief wrong — that too, can be interpreted as a generous insight into the mourning process: Who among us, upon being bereaved, has ever believed they’re doing grief right?
Certainly, little Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) does not. A solemn schoolboy eternally occupied with the plastic brick of his first-gen-Gameboy-style console, Hikari is an appealing anti-hero, delivering his wry observations in voiceover and to camera, blinking owlishly out at the world from behind his Coke-bottle glasses. His eyewear, like so much else here, is so retro as to be archaic, but he rejects laser surgery because “reality is stupid,” and so it might as well be blurry too. Hikari’s parents have just died in a bus crash, and at first the fact that he never cries bothers him. But among the little tribe of like-minded souls he meets at the crematorium, this emotional zombification becomes a point of pride.
Three other kids are stoically enduring their parents’ cremations at the same time, dragging their backstories around with them to be revealed later. Together the foursome will end up doing what any self-respecting gang of tweenage nihilists would: They form a band (the most aspirationally cool kids’ band since Lukas Moodysson’s “We Are the Best!”). Hikari’s on vocals, with his pocket game providing the chiptune melody for their impossibly catchy first hit; plump, sweet-natured Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), whose parents died in a wok fire, is on percussion; petty kleptomaniac Takemura (Mondo Okumura), whose abusive parents committed suicide, plays bass guitar; and the girl of the gang, Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), whose mother and father were murdered by her creepily obsessive piano teacher, is on keyboards.
In Ikuko especially, Nagihasa’s mischievous agenda to subvert the trashy stereotypes of Japanese pop culture is apparent: as a 13-year-old Lolita figure whose own mother referred to her as a “femme fatale,” the witheringly self-possessed Ikuko is a personified rebuke to the fantasy idea of the pliant, sexualized Japanese schoolgirl and to the adults who would foist it upon her. Instead, she’s weird and dark and totally her own. She gives the boys mean nicknames. She ringleads the foursome’s path into (and out of) brief stardom. She sings a poetic little ditty to the tune, instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever visited Japan, that is played each time the door of a Family Mart convenience store opens.
Somehow, DP Hiroaki Takeda manages to keep his seat on the bucking bronco of Nagahisa’s frenzied narrative. His gleefully novel framing gives us geometric overhead shots of the kids walking in single file like characters in a platform game and woozy sequences where the camera staggers around after a drunk character as if it too were sozzled. Even banal actions are made punkish by their odd perspectives, like the image of Hikari drinking orange juice that is delivered from the point of view of the juice.
But despite all this see-sawing swagger, cut to the rhythm of a massive cardiac event by snip-happy editor Maho Inamoto, and despite all the scuzzy, irreverent post-production shenanigans — picture-in-picture, text on screen, slo-mo, animation, black-and-white, split-screen, colored filters, giant goldfish swimming past apartment windows, etc. — it’s often the quiet, classical shots that linger most. When Hikari thinks of his father — whom he remembers, perhaps wrongly, as neglectful and withholding — it’s as a silhouette perched on the back of a sofa trimming his toenails, an image so beautifully precise it feels like an actual memory.
Moments like these help the film remain emotionally coherent despite its wild swings from dark comedy to knockabout adventure to surreal musical to celebrity satire to tragedy. But then, it’s the characters who are nihilists, not the movie: “We Are Little Zombies” is raucously irreverent about life and death and family and celebrity, but it has a deeply touching faith in the ability of these children to find in each other the strength to do the sudden growing up that their tragic circumstances require of them. And it really does believe in the healing power of supposedly disposable pop culture.
At two crammed hours in length, “We Are Little Zombies” runs a little long, and at some point the vertiginous fear sets in that Nagahisa can’t possibly maintain his fever-pitch of inventiveness right through. And indeed he does not, opting instead for a graceful slowdown (after a fake-out ending — stay in your seats, people!) that movingly delivers a final piece of surprisingly zen wisdom: Be it the good stuff, like friendship, family and home, or the bad stuff, like isolation, dissociation and grief, nothing lasts forever. Except, perhaps, the fiendishly unshakeable earworm choruses of this terrific, kaleidoscopic movie’s theme songs, which live on long after the credits roll, quite possibly for all eternity.