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‘We Are Little Zombies’ Review: Nagahisa Makoto’s Hallucinatory Debut Reimagines the Grieving Process as a Demented 8-Bit JRPG

Imagine if "House" director Obayashi Nobuhiko made "Scott Pilgrim" and you'll have a sense of what this chiptune epic has in store.

"We Are Little Zombies"

“We Are Little Zombies”

Oscilloscope

The first words of Nagahisa Makoto’s “We Are Little Zombies” are spoken by a deadpan and disembodied 13-year-old Game Boy addict named Hikari (Ninomiya Keita) as he watches his parents waft out the smokestack of a Tokyo crematorium. “Today, Mommy turned to dust. So did Daddy. Dusty as parmesan on a plate of Bolognese.” A gleaming wad of spaghetti appears over the giant chimney as if Photoshopped into the sky. Hikari lost both members of his small family a few days earlier when they were killed in a bus crash during the “worst-named package tour of all time: Destination Happiness!” The short-sighted tween — whose emotionless vibe falls somewhere between Detective Conan and a serial killer — isn’t impressed by the irony that left him an orphan. “Reality is too stupid to cry over,” he says. “And that’s that.”

But that, it turns out, is not that. Not by a long shot. Hikari is staring down the barrel of an 8-bit movie that’s as ecstatic and deranged as any of the classic JRPGs it ingests into its story. (If the setting evokes “Earthbound” and the top-down cinematography winks at “The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past,” the film’s existential streak can only be compared to the Playstation-era “Xenogears,” which found players waging a mecha battle against God.) Within just the first 15 minutes of Nagahisa’s debut, Hikari has formed a party with three other newly minted orphans and set off on an epic adventure to save the world. Or watch it end. It’s unclear. Wherever they end up, these kids are definitely going to start history’s greatest chiptune rock band along the way.

So begins a wild journey to hell and back that’s shaped by the frenzied violence of a child’s imagination, and paced with the staccato mania of four prepubescent nihilists as they role-play their way through a version of the grieving process that’s been gamified beyond all recognition. The title shot is a start menu. The glitchy score — written by Nagahisa himself — sounds like it’s bleating out of an NES. Ishi (Mizuno Satoshi), a chubby kid whose parents were burned alive in a wok-related fire, confuses a public toilet for a save point. Shots interrupt each other like random battles. The plot is broken up into platform-like game levels that guide its young characters back to their emotions in such an erratic way that Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wouldn’t even be able to follow with a strategy guide. DABDA doesn’t really apply here; try the Konami Code.

Does the thought of “House” director Obayashi Nobuhiko adapting “Scott Pilgrim” sound appealing to you? If so, pull up a seat at the phantom piano because you’re in the right place. Does the idea of “A chiptune ‘All About Lily Chou-Chou’” make even the slightest bit of sense? Start working on your cosplay.

“Sorry for the long prologue,” the stoic Hikari announces after the movie’s initial setup. “This is the story of four unemotional people.” And so it is. In addition to Ishi and our bespeckled narrator, playable characters also include the severe and athletic Takemura (Okumura Mondo), and the token girl of the group, Ikuko (Nakajima Sena), who is anything but the fragile healer that RPGs have conditioned us to expect from the only female in a party; she cleaves much closer to one of Sono Sion’s dead-eyed schoolgirl super killers, and woe to the men who mistake her for a sex object.

Each of our four heroes finds themselves unable to cry after losing their parents, all of whom were — in their own varyingly terrible ways — too caught up in the bustle of modern life to give their kids the love they needed. Now they’re left unsupervised to bop around a hyper-saturated Tokyo and look for questions that even these expressive adolescents don’t know how to ask. Someone asks Hikari if he’s dead inside, to which the boy responds that “Babies cry to signal that they’re hungry, but with no one around to help me, I’m not sure what crying would accomplish.”

Besides, the kids may not be the ones whose emotions really need to be exhumed; not when the adults of the world are just as locked into their own screens and shuffling back and forth through the sardine can of Shinjuku Station like zombies. Hikari and his friends couldn’t be that braindead if they tried, and the giddy darkness of Nagahisa’s debut is textured with the wistfulness of what happens when people grow up and get numb to the world. The “Little Zombies” might seem to be stunted in a “Village of the Damned” sort of way, but there’s more life and raw imagination contained in their blinkered sadness than they might ever manage to find again should they “beat the game” and survive this current strife.

Nagahisa conveys that unformed creativity through a non-stop barrage of visual effects, and even towards the end of this dense, exhausting two-hour quest, it still feels like there are new ways to look at our lives. You can’t talk about video games without judging the graphics! Vortexes of fire, a nightmarish riff on “The Red Balloon,” and a scene where betta fish swim in the skies outside the window of a high-rise apartment represent just a tiny fraction of the “why not” madness that’s hurled at your eye holes along Hikari’s journey. After our heroes encounter a vagabond who regales them with a “Suicide Club”-adjacent anthem about the punitive effect of Tokyo’s social planning on the homeless population, the kids are formed into a MIDI-powered band (with an all-time ear worm of a hit single called “We Are Little Zombies”) and forced to appear on the talk show “Music Hell,” which feels like something Hieronymous Bosch might code on a Sega Genesis.

Needless to say, there’s a lot going on here, and the film’s visual density doesn’t always mesh with Nagahisa’s deadpan approach. Your eyes will glaze over at some point along the way, especially once the kids’ low-key anger sublimates into something a bit more abstract.

But each scene is so unexpected — so outright impossible to expect — that one thing or another will come along and jolt you back to attention. Maybe it will be the strangest Zombies cover ever recorded, or the surprisingly tender scene in which the kids drive a stolen truck into some kind of uterine abyss in order for Hikari to witness his own birth; the unguarded emotional purity of that moment hits like a silver bullet after 100 minutes of high-speed dislocation, even if you’re not entirely positive what it means. As this unclassifiable wildfire burns itself out, all you can say for sure is that these little zombies are alive in ways that most adults have lost the ability to imagine. Whatever demented game its characters are playing, Nagahisa’s live-action Twitch-fest is delightful for how it lets us watch along.

Grade: B+

Oscilloscope will release “We Are Little Zombies” through virtual cinemas on Friday, July 10.

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