When someone succeeds to be the first Japanese director to win the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, it says something about one’s talent as much as it creates certain expectations for the future. After And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool (2017), the short-narrative that won the grand Jury prize, Makoto Nagahisa finally presents We Are Little Zombies, his first feature-length narrative.
As his debut feature film managed to win the Jury Special Award and the Originality Award at this year’s Sundance Festival, our expectations are higher than ever.
One sunny day, in the shadow of crematorium’s chimney, Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), Yuki (Mondo Okumura), and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) have a chance meeting. While each of them have lost their parents, it is not the passing of their parents as such that binds them, but the lack of emotions – a lack beyond all societal expectations – they had at the funeral of their parents.
As none of the children feel they have a place, they decide to wander through the world together and visit each other’s houses in order to retrieve certain objects. Our outsiders, having no roof above their head, eventually end up at a garbage disposal factory. At the factory, a band of homeless people inspires them to start their own rock-band, Little Zombies, in order to find out how to feel.
We Are Little Zombies can best be described as an energetic and operatic coming-of-age drama, a drama approaching the notion of love and its (important) function within human relationships in a visually refreshing way. While what love truly is remains undefined in the narrative, love is evoked as a positive element for the establishing of inter-subjective relationships. This idea is only able to be touched upon via its reversal, via revealing the impact of problematic relationships at the level of love – be it parental or other – on the subjectivity of our four protagonists, an impact resulting in a zombification of emotional expression.
Hikari, whose parents died in a bus-accident on a “All You Can Eat Strawberries” expedition, is a child who has forsaken the real world in exchange for the virtual world. This flight into the virtual is not caused by Hikari’s abusive school-context – even though this context strengthens his flight, but by the very way in which his parents kill his demand for love. Beyond the question of love that plays between the parents, who were on the verge of divorcing, is a dynamic, a dynamic of giving everything he asks, that kills his desire for love. If Hikari defines himself as being unloved by his parents, it is because the materialistic answering of his desire leaves no room for him to desire the love of his parents (Narra-note 1, Narra-note 2).
Ishi, for that matter, lost his parents in a fire. The problematic dimension of love and desire is not so much felt in the fact that his parents make fun of him, forced him to do Karata, and subtly exploit him for their restaurant, but through the speech of the father. What his father truly reveals when he says that he only married his mother because she was pregnant and that him taking over of the restaurant was only caused by the running away of his brother, is that he had never desired anything of this. In other words, his father’s desire has never been brought in play, problematizing his function within the relational dynamic of the family – function as father, function as husband, … etc.
Yuki, also called klepto by Ikuko, had a problematic violent family situation – a situation abruptly ended by the dubious suicide of his parents. Before the double suicide, his father ruled with abusive terror over the family, beating up Yuki’s mother regularly. Even when Yuki tries to stand up for his abused mother, his father does not hesitate to beat Yuki too. The aspect of love is most obviously made present here, through his older brother’s punk song ‘milk is love’. This song situates the prove that there is still love in the world in the act of milk production – thus between mother/cow and child/calf.
The parents of Ikuko are murdered by someone she and her parents knew. The problematic dimension of love is, in Ikuko’s case, not only evoked by the lack of love expressed by her mother – her mother’s wish that Ikuko never existed, but also through the problematic love her piano teacher harbours for her. By charactering her daughter as a Femme Fatale, a woman that attracts/seduces people into their bad luck, Ikuko’s mother situates something desirable in her – something that problematizes the position of the other sex.
Each of our protagonists is revealed as having an object – an object instead of a subject – that makes his life bearable. Hikari has his games, Ishi his fry pan, Yuki his guitar, and Ikuko her piano. It is through these objects that our band of misfits come to form a band. While their sudden popularity of their band, Little Zombies, gives them, for the very first time, a positive image of adoration within the relational maze that makes up exploitative and abusive society, this positive image doesn’t resolve the problematic dimension of love they’ve all been subjected to or change their position as being subjected to adult exploitation.
While some spectators may feel that the narrative, beyond its impressive fantastical faux-ending, fails to frame the closure of the themes of love it has evoked in a satisfying way, this feeling is not in line with the formal poetic tendency of the narrative. The ending of We Are Little Zombies is evocative and intellectual, an ending evoking, at the same moment, the need for motherly love, the choice to continue – yes or no – the game of life, and the realisation of a grieving position. Put in this way, We Are Little Zombies’ narrative concerns nothing other than the coming-into-being-of-grief, a coming-into-being guided by the evocative questioning of that strange little thing called love (Narra-note 3 (Major spoiler)).
What is immediately evident in the framing of the narrative is the sheer craziness of the cinematographical composition – a craziness supported by an equally extravagant lightning and colour design. This energetic craziness is not only apparent in the expressive nature of the cinematography, the visual poetic touch, and the refreshing shot-compositions, but also in the often frantic concatenation of shots used to accelerate the narrative’s unfolding (Cine-note 1). While one could characterize the cinematography as a mix of fixed shots, fluid moving shots, and crude following shots, such characterisation does the highly original complexity of the cinematography, a cinematography consisting of a mix of a myriad of styles and techniques (e.g. slow-motion, fast-forwards, …), a great disservice. Of course, due to its 120-minutes runtime, this kinetic blend of styles and techniques, this mesmerizing composition creating a seemingly never ending craziness, may become somewhat exhausting for some.
With all that visual energy present in the narrative, we’re happy to see that Nagahisa thought of adding certain elements to orient We Are Little Zombies. One such element is Hikari’s narrating voice, a voice revealing, while dictating the beats of the narrative, the overarching nature of Hikari’s subjective journey (Cine-note 2). As Hikari’s honest commentaries, his philosophical thoughts and fantasies pass by, one comes to discern that the impact of the narrating voice goes beyond mere narrative orientation. Not only does Hikari’s voice tame the wild cinematographical energy, his subjective voice also heightens, by dictating the rhythmic flow through the signifiers it brings into play, the poetic effect these concatenations can evoke (Cine-note 3).
As the narrating voice becomes less used in the middle-part of the narrative – its poetic potential and guiding power taken over by speech, be it as monologue or as conversation, the focus of the narrative shifts to the framing of the individual perspectives of the other three members and their adventure as a group. While one can say that the narrative’s rhythm becomes somewhat normalized in this middle part, the cinematography does not lose its quirkiness at all. This quirkiness originates from the very game-like way in which the framing of the narrative is approached. This retro-game atmosphere is not only evoked through the bit-styled game sequence that introduces the “game’s title” and its “heroes”, but also by the bit-styled titles that structure/orient the narrative into “game-stages” (Cine-note 4). Note that these bit-styled titles, due to their association with Hikari’s subjectivity, reveal that, when all is said and done, We Are Little Zombies is essentially only Hikari’s narrative, a framing of his subjective journey.
While the bit-styled titles and Hikari’s narrating voive structures the narrative on a formal level, the true structuring element is the signifier as such. What’s most impressive in We Are Little Zombies’ energetic cinematographical mix is Nagahisa’s talent to exploit the poetic potential of the signifier, a talent revealing his grasp of the cinematographical medium. Note in the narrative how, at certain moments, the insistence of a particular signifier (e.g. scissors) subtly guides cinematographical compositions (e.g. Ikuko’s narrative) (Narra-note 4). In fact, We Are Little Zombies reveals that the image depends on the signifier within the signifying articulation of the cinematographical narrative. As the image is stuffed by the signifier, one has to conclude that the unfolding of the dimension of speech and the dimension of the image is only possible by the fact that both dimensions find their structure in the signifier.
The energetic cinematographical mix supported by an equally energetic mix of music – a mix of classical music, punk-music, funky music and the retro game-like musical pieces. Note that music, beyond evoking a certain mood, generally changes according to the character in focus. Retro-game like music is mostly associated with Hikari, while classical piano-music supports the framing of Ikuko’s narrative.
Even though the fluid and energetic mix of styles might be a bit exhausting at times, We Are Little Zombies stands as an amazing achievement of creativity – a creativity born from Nagahisa’s choice to let the subjectivity of his protagonists dictate the cinematographical composition as such. Nagahisa’s visual and intellectual experiment, an experiment revealing his firm grasp of the medium of film and the evocative and poetic potential of the signifier, is one of the most original narratives to be released dealing with the coming-into-being-of-grief through the questioning of the dimension of love. With We Are Little Zombies, Nagahisa has earned himself the honour to be considered as one of the most promising directors of Japan today.
Cine-note 1: The expressive nature of the cinematography is already made clear in the very beginning of the narrative. There the sudden appearance of a plate of spaghetti comes to support the association between the dust of cremation and cheese sprinkled on spaghetti made by our main character.
Cine-note 2: While Hikari’s voice dictates the narrative’s structure, the perspectives of the three other members of Little Zombies are also framed in the narrative.
Cine-note 3: Flashbacks – flashbacks ever related to Hikari – are easily integrated into the quirky flow of the narrative.
Cine-note 4: Note that the bit-styled titles are not only used to introduce the game-stages of the narrative, but also to supplement the framing of the narrative as such.
Narra-note 1: Note that in Hikari’s abusive school context, the teacher does nothing to prevent the bullying. She just says she knows.
Narra-note 2: Note that the zombification of subjects by smartphones is also evoked in the narrative. One can read this visualisation as revealing the problematizing of desire by the technological enjoyment running rampant in contemporary society.
Narra-note 3: The very final shot of the narrative should be read as the revelation that the entire narrative was Hikari’s imagination, the mental path he needed to comes to the realisation of his grief and love.
Narra-note 4: In Ikuko’s narrative the insistence on the scissors evokes, by association, the act that made her lose her ring finger.