Sundance 2019: We Are Little Zombies, by David Bax
Honestly, the fact that there’s so much going on beneath the surface of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies is just gravy, given that its aesthetic delights are more than enough to justify the two hours spent watching it. From restless, frenetic editing to arch shot choices (like one from inside a glass of orange juice as one of the characters is drinking it) to a motif of music and graphics directly inspired by video games, the movie is entrancingly never boring (one of my favorite bits is a slow-motion sequence soundtracked by very fast music). Still, beyond all that he shows us, Nagahisa has quite a lot to tell us.
Four children meet at a crematorium, all of them having lost both of their parents on the same day. Facing a new and bleaker future, they decide to run away together after collecting a few precious items (a Gameboy, a wok, etc.). Upon discovering a country rock band made up of homeless men playing improvised instruments scavenged from the garbage, they decide to form their own band. In the blink of an eye, the Little Zombies are the biggest new thing in Japan.
Almost immediately, Nagahisa eschews any overnight success movie tropes and sets his characters on existential explorations of why they’re even doing what they’re doing in the first place; these kids may be young but they’ve seen a lot. They’re already too world weary to be motivated by common banalities such as love (most of their parents were pretty shitty) or money (the other kids are initially impressed by the home of the band’s rich kid vocalist and then quickly become disillusioned by the emptiness of his life).
Nagahisa’s lack of sentimentality for the nuclear family is radical; he takes it almost for granted that a de facto family of friends is happier and stronger than whichever one you’re born into. Yet, he’s no cynic. We Are Little Zombies does not share the point of view of its characters that “Reality is stupid.”
Rather, Nagahisa’s more optimistic outlook is that reality is merely stupid most of the time. We Are Little Zombies is a happy tribute to the increasingly easy to accomplish goal of better living through distraction. Games, music, constant restless motion; there is no shortage of ways to obliterate your own immediate present. The characters here are undecided as to whether to do so because the real world is too boring to stand or too much to handle. We Are Little Zombies ultimately succeeds, though, by concluding that this is all folly. There’s no way around life; you’ve gotta go through it.