Funerals need more humor — at least according to the kid musicians of Little Zombies.
The four band members, averaging about 13 years in age, are all recently orphaned when they meet outside of a funeral home:
“Whose funeral?” “Mommy and daddy’s.” “No way — me too.” “Me too!” “Mine were in a car crash.” “House fire.” “… Did you say ‘mommy’?”
For a bunch of kids with dead parents, they’re surprisingly nonchalant about the whole affair. It’s a little shocking at first, especially considering how brutal their parents’ deaths were: while cooking Ishi’s (Satoshi Mizuno) daily snack of stir fry, Ishi’s parents perished in a house fire; Ikuko’s (Sena Nakajima) obsessive piano teacher murdered her parents to gain the underage girl’s affection; Takemura’s (Mondo Okumura) mother and abusive father committed suicide; and Hiraki’s (Keita Ninomiya) emotionally distant parents were headed for a strawberry field when they were consumed in an explosive bus crash, their final destination never reached.
So it’s clear early on that We Are Little Zombies is not a typical movie about grief. Directed by Makoto Nagahisa, the film is a psychedelic, super meta, deeply subversive, and imaginative adventure that shows how wildly complex mourning can be.
We Are Little Zombies is structured like a retro video game, embedded with pixelated title cards and soundtracked with upbeat chiptune. The very format rejects melancholy, which makes sense: even in their darkest moments, the Little Zombies don’t want to be pitied — or even loved.
“Reality is too sad to cry over, and that’s that. I’m not sad. I’m not sad. I’m not sad,” Hiraki says. So the kids run away from their newly appointed caretakers, start a band, and rise rapidly to internet virality with a super “emo” hit single, before running away again — this time from their adoring fans.
All the while, reminders of the past wax and wane. “Boredom is dangerous, because it brings back memories,” Hiraki says. The alternative is resisting them however you can, even if it means catastrophe.
That’s what makes the boss level so challenging for the kids to beat. All this time, they’ve been slyly avoiding mourning with colorful adventures while destroying or clinging onto emblems of their past: Ishi salvages his parents’ stir fry wok — the only thing that survives the fire — wearing it like a shield and beating it like a drum; Ikuko smashes her cell phone to pieces in a game of baseball while her parents’ murderer yells from the speaker; the four scream-sing about having no hopes or dreams in the pop hit that launches them to stardom.
Incredibly, We Are Little Zombies still manages to stay coherent even while spiraling through incongruent moods. That’s what makes the movie so special. In pop culture, grief is gray and flat. Its “five stages” give the illusion of neatness and order. But in reality, grief is confusing and maddening and overwhelming with no end in sight. It demands catharsis but won’t allow it. You want to go back, back to when things were still okay. But there’s no way out; the only choice is to press on and emerge on the other side.
That is what the Little Zombies discover at the end of their journey, when their shenanigans boil over into chaos, and they finally have to confront the horrible truth of their situation. It’s done without heavyhandedness, and with the same biting cynicism and quirky attitude that pervades the whole movie. In the end, they walk through the strawberry fields Hiraki parents never reached. The sun is bright and golden and the grass is brilliantly green. “You’d think the final scene would be more emotional,” they say. “It’s not the final scene, not in life anyway.” “Life goes on… undramatically.”
Stream now at The Roxie through July 30.