Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 09, 2020 8:20 am 
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Joyous gloom

In Makoto Nagahisa's tooty-tooty pastel-gaudy directorial debut three boys and one girl in their early teens meet at a crematorium. They've all lost both parents, by different means: a bus crash, a fire, suicide, murder. Details are explored. Is this fetishishizing and cutesifying of morbidity something very Japanese? Certainly the masking of emotion - hence the kids self-definition as "zombies" - is an aspect of typically Japanese repression and discipline. As Emily Yoshida of Vulture wrote at the Sundance debut, this film is as "rigorous in its exploration of grief as it is stylistically exuberant." It's a busy, gaudy brilliant tour de force whose two hours can be a bit wearying. But viewers may come back to it to soak up more of its rich texture and stylistic accomplishments.

Little Zombies is neatly divided up into chapters in Nintendo-style letters Super Nintendo RPG, each chapter of the story a "stage" to pass through; and scored with a bleeping chiptune soundtrack, with many additional bells and whistles, including zoom, gliding overhead shots, black-and-white, slow motion, odd lenses, photo collages, dream sequences, Super 8 footage,you name it. Its blend of cynicism and pathos may be hard to digest, but it's a feat of invention worth watching simply to admire the production design and bright-colored, surreal costumes. It has energy and invention to burn. The [url=""]Japan Times[/url] reviewer James Hadfield argues, and I would have to agree, that there's "enough substance and heart" to keep this film from being "a mere exercise in style," though style threatens to overwhelm substance at times.

The first kid we meet is Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), and the film spotlights him dramatically, like a star, with his wry voiceover providing the films's narration throughout. He's a small, nerdy, bespectacled boy who's shy and obsessed by an archaic handheld computer game, first-gen-Gameboy-style console that he plays continually. It's his stay against confusion and protection from people. His parents, he tells us, had no time for him. Ignoring him, they went on a bus tour to revive their marriage, and the driver crashed the bus, killing everybody but him. Hikari does not want to live with his aunt.

Hikari bonds with the three other kids whose parents died from fire, murder, and suicide. Ikuko (Sena Nakajima) had a creepy piano teacher who hit on her and killed her parents, he claims, because he thought she wanted them dead. The chubby little Ishi's parents died in a house fire. The tall, thin Takemura's mom and dad committed joint suicide.

Though at first Hikari's inability to cry bothers him, the kids' lack of emotion winds up being a shared strength and a source of pride. It fortifies them to run away together rather than fall into the hands of basically alien adults they don't like. Isn't such sangfroid an admired Japanese cultural trait? But a friend who's visited Japan many times (I have never been there) says this movie taught him things about how Japanese culture has changed, noting the quantity of English they now use, suggesting "the younger kids are much more bilingual," and he also noted "social indicators" like the joint that's smoked and the several references to Kafka's The Castle. Anyway, you will find an intense concentration of both retro and contempo Japanese culture here.

The film's spirit - the state the kids are jointly confronting - is epitomized by the song they eventually compose and sing, "We Are Little Zombies." Fleeing relatives or other undesirable adults, they take refuge in a succession of well-staged environments: an abandoned apartment, a convenience store, a punk band’s rundown rehearsal space. When they temporarily wind up in a homeless encampment they see a group of hobo musicians perform in a "garbage band." Typically, these bums' elaborately bedraggled duds are something to behold. This sight and sound gives the kids their inspiration: why not form their own chiptune rock band? When they do, briefly, their signature song, the eponymous one, goes viral. And as Jessica Kiang says in her Variety review, they become the "most aspirationally cool kids' band since Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!" - a good memory, and a movie that has more heart than the congenitally chill kids here can muster, though perhaps one should not blame them for that. It's just the way they are.

Nagahisa is in tune with key aspects of the local zeitgeist. His feature is an impressive production in a current style that's on the over-produced side. Stylistically this movie has been compared to the work of the prolific Sion Sono. But it's sweeter and without the soft porn.

We Are Little Zombiesウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, 120 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2019, where it won the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award for Originality. It will be distributed online by Oscilloscope starting Jul. 10, 2020. To watch it currently via Oscilloscope go HERE.

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