A couple of weeks back, the long-awaited The Last of Us II was released, and was instantly heralded as a welcome addition to any gaming canon. As you can guess, this prompted an immediate contrarian backlash. I have no way of qualifying any of these statements due to the fact that I cannot play, and have no interest in playing, The Last of Us II. My feelings upon video games as a medium on the whole, can be summed up by my one true epiphany about them: video games are the only medium that asks you to pass a test to get to obtain more of the story.
It has to be stated that I do not necessarily believe this is a bad thing, but I think it highlights the difference between video games and film outside of the Memento DVD menu. Games, by their very essence, are about the ability to consciously exert your own influence on the direction of the narrative. The needs of the story are subjugated to the needs of completing the puzzle or the performing the time-based action. Films are not like this. Try and imagine for a second that in order to get to Jeanne Dielman’s second day, you have to complete a puzzle that spells out the potato recipe she makes on the first day. It would be ludicrous.
Which is partially why it baffles me slightly when films adopt 8-bit inspired aesthetics as their own style. Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies, a story of four suddenly orphaned youths disconnected from their emotions who start a rock band together, is not the first film to explicitly incorporate gaming as an aesthetic pull. Here in the west, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim might be the most well-known example of such a piece; the wild Speed Racer could be another, although I might quibble and say that manga is the dominant mode of visual reference there.
Nor will We Are Little Zombies be the last film to borrow classic gaming aesthetics in the development of its own visual style. But I think it warrants the question—why? What is to be gained by taking the broadly sketched aesthetics of a medium entirely built around interjection, and superimposing them onto a medium that demands a startling lack of it.
This is all a really elaborate and long-winded way of describing a particular aesthetic I find tacky, of which We Are Little Zombies somehow manages to transcend. All of my skills here are not enough to describe this film. It’s a gonzo piece of art, filled with a million styles, fuchsia colour filters, high-key lighting, references to Kafka’s “The Castle,” and a completely bonkers ending. I’m not entirely certain that it adds up to anything, but if it doesn’t, it’s one hell of a piece of art for art’s sake.
On paper, this is a simple premise and bizarre premise. Four orphans, led by front man Hikari (Ninnomiya Keita), all lose parents on the same day. Each set of parents, as revealed to us through some elaborate backstories, levied some form of neglect on their children, which has left them incapable of crying at their funerals. Thus, they logically create a band in order to detail their emotions. Their name: Little Zombies, after a game Hikari plays on his classic Game Boy.
Did I mention that their band absolutely shreds? It’s as if they were gifted with a cheat cod; up, up, down, down, left, right, rock on. I swear that I will have the chorus of their main earworm “We are Little Zombies,” rummaging around my head at the most inopportune times over the next couple of weeks. It’s not just the band’s music that rips, it’s Nagahisa’s 8-bit inspired score which is filled with bleeps and bloops that provides just as much of a pleasant sonorous impact.
I’m less jazzed about some of the other gaming inspired touches. If, the idea of Scott Pilgrim meets Happiness of the Katakuris sounds appealing to you, then you probably need to seek out We Are Little Zombies pronto. If it sounds like a little much to you, then maybe it doesn’t need to be a priority (I have to admit that it’s the former of that equation which provides the trepidations). The reasoning behind such a choice might offer some insight into why Nagahisa went in this direction. Being charitable, one might suggest that it’s indicative of a larger metaphor, wherein our connection to our creative impulses is the only thing that makes life tolerable. The world of these zombies is so gamified, it can only be the product of childish imagination, sorely lacked by the litany of disconnected adult influences within this world. Thereby, being less charitable one might be inclined to suggest that the film is Benigni inspired. In reality it probably exists somewhere in between; both equally enthralling, and filled with fodder for temple rubbing.
Specifically, I found the dozen level-change inspired title cards to be a touch cloying. When this is a rock opera, I’m all in; when this leans heavier into its RPG trappings, I’m less enamoured. None of this by the way touches upon the rest of We Are Little Zombies, the everything in-between, highlights of which include a garbage-truck submarine swim through the underworld like this is some sort of Adult Swim version of The Magic School Bus. It’s impossible to not find this film’s stylish excess charming and enjoyable. So, grab your guitars and N64 cartridges and jam them into your nearest amp. All together now! Up, up, down, down, left, right, rock out!
- Rated: PG
- Genre: Drama, Music
- Release Date: 7/10/2020
- Directed by: Makoto Nagahisa
- Starring: Keita Ninomiya, Rinko Kikuchi, Satoshi Mizuno, Sena Nakajima
- Produced by: Haruhiko Hasegawa, Shin'ichi Takahashi, Taihei Yamanishi
- Written by: Makoto Nagahisa
- Studio: Dentsu, Nikkatsu, Parco Co. Ltd., Robot Communications, Sony Music Entertainment