The Debut Feature from Makoto Nagahisa, is a Pointless Exercise in Style
Writer and director Makoto Nagahisa, who made his feature debut with We Are Little Zombies, refers to the film as something like a music festival “featuring all my favorite actors, musicians, and artists.” He’s right that this film mimics being at a music festival, but not in the way he’s hoping; it’s the cinematic equivalent of planning out a day full of new bands you’ve never heard of and finding out that every single one of them is terrible.
Nagahisa reveals in the opening moments of We Are Little Zombies that he’s not interested in sentimentality. We’re introduced to Hikari (Keita Ninomiya, best known for his role in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son) as his parents are being turned to dust — literally. They become like “fine parmesan atop a plate of spaghetti Bolognese” as they ascend into the clouds from the smokestack of a crematorium. We learn that Hikari’s parents were killed in a tour bus accident after the driver fell asleep, and in the days since their death, he hasn’t shed a single tear or expressed any longing. He doesn’t even seem to especially regret their deaths.
At the crematorium, he meets three other 13-year-olds, all of whom have lost both their parents around the same time. Shinpachi (Satoshi Mizuno) is the son of restaurateurs who are killed when their restaurant explodes due to a gas explosion. Yuki (Mondo Okumura, a prolific child artist specializing in portraits) clashes with his abusive problem-gambler father and detests his mother for taking the beatings, so he doesn’t seem concerned when they both hang themselves out of financial despair. And Sena Nakajima rounds out the quartet as Ikuko, a young pianist of middling talent whose piano teacher is a pedophile looking to fall into her good graces. Despite spotting him for what he is, she whispers something unheard when he offers to grant her any single wish of her choosing, and suddenly her parents have been murdered by him.
The four are instantly united by their shared grief or lack thereof. When Yuki shows some proficiency on a bass that he picked up from his dismissive punk rocker brother, Ikuko senses they could form a band with their talents. She already knows how to play piano, and Shinpachi can keep a steady beat on his drum set, which he augments with his dead parents’ charred wok as a cymbal. Hikari is the vocalist and nominal leader, but he doesn’t have much in the way of musical talent. His “instrument” is the Game Boy–like handheld video game console he carries everywhere, which plays 8-bit chiptune music from an old school game called We Are Little Zombies, which the group adopts as their name.
At this point, the film seems to be setting us up for an inspiring story of the four teens discovering their true potential and creating lifelong friendships. Wisely, Nagahisa’s strategy steers clear of that clichéd territory, but in his attempt to create something new he ends up making a film that’s impossible to care about. We Are Little Zombies is meant to titillate thanks to its candy-colored cinematography by Hiroaki Takeda, but most of the time it feels as if we’re stuck in a never-ending music video. They’re fun to look at (in three- to five-minute bursts) but they usually don’t pack much of an emotional wallop. I’m not a fan of the expression “all style and no substance,” as great directors use copious style as a means of expressing themselves, but We Are Little Zombies fits the bill. Like so much contemporary culture, the film cribs its style from video games, but Nagahisa doesn’t seem interested in figuring out whether that’s a good thing. Hikari uses video games as a refuge from reality, and he did so long before his parents died, but the film doesn’t bother to interrogate his connection to the simplistic stories and colorful yet empty visuals. Nagahisa didn’t have to include a ham-fisted denunciation of video games’ effects on Hikari, but the movie is left tottering by the lack of direct consideration they receive.
Nagahisa stuffs We Are Little Zombies with every effect imaginable, but they rarely help tell his story. He uses slow motion, rapid-fire cutting, split screens, changes of aspect ratio, black and white photography, and computer-generated effects, but they rarely reveal some greater truth about the characters or the ways their minds work. He’s like a technically brilliant jazz musician who plays as fast and loud as he can during every solo; Nagahisa shows the extent of his abilities in every sequence, to the point at which his style becomes boring. His fakeout ending takes place aboard a submarine sailing through an otherworldly ooze that’s also a womb, which is seemingly inspired by the final journey in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. In Anderson’s film, that scene packs an emotional punch because it’s the first time the title character allows himself to grieve the death of his son. But there’s not that emotional moment in We Are Little Zombies — and there never is — making that scene no different from any other display of virtuosity.
We Are Little Zombies ends its interminable two-hour runtime about where it started. Its teenage psychopaths are still psychopaths, and the film insists we should care about them, but doesn’t offer a reason why that should be. Perhaps Nagahisa could use his visual language to animate the work of a more talented writer, but his debut feature crashes and burns with its stub of a story. His characters won’t shed a tear for it.