Death is a lot of things, but one aspect that doesn’t always get mentioned is how absurd the whole experience can be. I’m not thinking so much of one’s own death (although that could certainly also be absurd) but the experience of having someone close to you die, and going through the customary social rituals of your culture while also dealing with all kinds of feelings you may well not have felt before. Yes, it hurts terribly, but there’s also the fact that the rituals of your culture may not have the intended effect on you, and that other people are frequently unsure about how to respond to you. There’s also the stream of conflicting emotions you may be feeling, some of which are definitely not the kind of thing you wish to discuss, and the fact that all kinds of things can go wrong in even the most well-planned funeral. If you’re a kid who has suddenly become orphaned, the potential for absurdity is that much greater, because the adults that are supposed to know how to help you may just make matters worse.
Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Takemura (Mondo Okumura) have several things in common—they’re all 13 years old, they’re all recent orphans, and their parents all died in circumstances that would be funny if the outcome were not so tragic. They’re all also unable to feel any emotions about the fact of their parents’ deaths, and of course that’s the most socially unacceptable of all reactions. Since they understand each other, they form a sort of unofficial support group, then decide to take it to the next level by doing the most teenage thing they can think of—forming a band, aptly named The Little Zombies. Of course, they become a viral sensation, which they see as the perfect revenge on everyone who has ever mistreated them, from classroom bullies to neglectful adults.
The Little Zombies is Makoto Nagahisa’s first film, but you’d never guess that from watching it. This film has none of the mannerisms of a first-time writer-director, but instead manages to be at once inventive, self-assured, and psychologically astute. The Little Zombies is sincere but also self-aware, lively without being frenetic, and works in a variety of visual styles, including a nod to super-cheap video game graphics. It’s also very funny, with Hikari’s matter-of-fact narration only increasing the hilarity of his offbeat observations. His parents died when their tour bus went off the road, and he wants us to know that they were on “the worst-named package tour of all time. When called to identify their bodies, his first thought is that it’s TV prank. When he realizes it’s real, he declares that “reality is too stupid to cry over,” funerals are “five times more boring than History class,” then tops it off by accidentally dropping his mother’s framed portrait during the ceremony.
We Are Little Zombies is receiving its Canadian premiere at Fantasia 2019, where it’s an entrant in the festival’s flagship juried competition, the Cheval Noir. It’s already enjoyed substantial success on the festival circuit, including awards at the Berlin Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival, and the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema. | Sarah Boslaugh