Shanghai Film Review: ‘We Are Little Zombies’

A hyperstylized, hyperactive and hyper-fun movie spectacular about four newly bereaved Japanese orphans who form a pop band.

Makoto Nagahisa
Keito Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima. (Japanese dialogue)

Running time: 120 MIN.

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.

Popular on Variety

Shanghai Film Review: 'We Are Little Zombies'

Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival, June 18, 2019. (Also in Sundance, Berlin film festivals.) Running time: 120 MIN. (Original title: “Wî â Ritoru Zonbîzu”)

Production: (Japan) A DDDream Int'l (in China) release and presentation of a Nikkatsu Corp. production. (Int'l sales: Nikkatsu International Sales, Tokyo). Producers: Taihei Yamanishi, Haruki Yokoyama, Haruhiko Hasegawa, Shin’ichi Takahashi. Executive producers: Keiichi Yoshizaki, Shigeto Arai, Michinori Mizuno, Hajime Inoue, Takaaki Kabuto.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Makoto Nagahisa. Camera (color, widescreen): Hiroaki Takeda. Editor: Maho Inamoto. Music: Katsuya Yamada.

With: Keito Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima. (Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • Rob Schneider'The Week Of' film premiere,

    Film News Roundup: Rob Schneider Wins SAG-AFTRA National Board Seat

    In today’s film news roundup, Rob Schneider wins a SAG-AFTRA board seat; “Badland,” “Sorry We Missed You” and “Extracurricular” find homes; and “The Shawshank Redemption” gets a re-release.  More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' SAG-AFTRA Rob Schneider has won a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate [...]

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The [...]

  • Spider-Man Could Leave the Marvel Cinematic

    Spider-Man Could Leave MCU if Disney, Sony Can't Reach Financing Deal

    Disney’s Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures have hit an impasse on new financing terms for upcoming Spider-Man movies, sources have told Variety. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' If a deal cannot be reached, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will not produce future Spider-Man films, effectively removing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man [...]

  • Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality

    Australia Makes Progress on Gender Equality in Film and TV

    Screen Australia, Australia’s federal film and TV funding body, has made sufficient progress in furthering gender equality that it has set more ambitious targets. More Reviews Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela' Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct' The organization has exceeded its long-term Gender Matters key performance indicator, with 56% of projects receiving production funding having at [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content