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the cast of We Are Little Zombies in their extravagant Little Zombies band costumes Image: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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A lifetime of retro games inspired Japan’s ecstatic We Are Little Zombies

Director Makoto Nagahisa reminds us: ‘Reality doesn’t come with a Nintendo Multitap’

Death ignites a deceivingly profound adventure in Japanese writer-director Makoto Nagahisa’s indelible first feature, We Are Little Zombies. A charmingly morbid fantasia, the movie takes inspiration, in equal measures, from Nagahisa’s lifelong obsession with video games, and his more recently developed passion for music.

In We Are Little Zombies, our teenage orphans, whose respective parents passed away in uniquely tragic situations, meet at a crematory and, as their family members’ bodies burn into ashes, come together for no-strings-attached companionship. Stoic to a fault, the quartet conceals any signs of mourning and moves on quickly to face the world without adult supervision. Paved with gallows humor and psychedelic occurrences, their downcast course leads them to form a rock band, Little Zombies, and discover viral fame.

Lead singer, and “Player 1” in the story, Hikari (Keita Ninomiya), is an avid gamer who associates his countless consoles, especially the beloved handheld one that accompanies him everywhere, with his late parents’ affection. Every device and game they bought for him carries emotional value. Even his poor eyesight, as a result of incessant screen-time, is rationalized as a connection to his often-distant mom and dad.

“Hikari’s childhood mirrors my own. Most of the time, when I wasn’t at school, I also stayed in an apartment and only played video games,” said Nagahisa writing to Polygon from Tokyo. “His room is also a rather faithful reproduction of my own room at the time.”

Although numerous video game references, both stylistic and thematic, permeate every pixel of the film, for Nagahisa, the one influence that resonates heaviest is a JRPG titled Live A Live.

Released exclusively in Japan in 1994 by Square on the Super Famicon, Live A Live was the first game from director Takashi Tokita, who would later helm Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve, and allowed the user to wander through different chapters in world history as eight different characters. “If you can find a way to play it, please do! It is incredible and very powerful,” said the filmmaker.

Constantly bullied growing up, Nagahisa found solace from the cruelty of others by imagining himself as a character in a role-playing game who is trying to outmaneuver a difficult experience. We Are Little Zombies is structured and shot as such, with many of the characters’ hardships being treated like events in a top-down video game and visually presented from a bird’s-eye-view perspective. Once Nagahisa completed his detailed hand-drawn storyboards, cinematographer Hiroaki Takeda would interpret them as vibrant sensory explosions.

A battle screen from Square’s RPG Live A Live
A screen from Live A Live
Image: Square Enix

Not only did Nagahisa design the entire film’s aesthetic through a video game’s filter, but he also engaged with the philosophical implications of the medium. “In a video game you can come back multiple times when you die, but in reality, it’s actually game over after the first death,” he said. “In my childhood, games where a character could revive again and again allowed me to better understand the finality of actual life.”

In We Are Little Zombies, Hikari’s conviction to live as if in a single-player game, rarely relying on anyone else’s help, also stems from his observations on those differences between flesh-and-bone reality and the artificial one on screen. According to Nagahisa, life is always operated only by Player 1, yourself, a fact that irremediably turns everyone into a lone wolf. “Reality doesn’t come with a Nintendo Multitap, which would allow for four people to play the same game, but that would be amazing,” he added.

Yet another element that exists at the intersection between being a visually motivated choice and one of a metaphorical nature is the 8-bit animation seen during the opening credits. “8-bit graphics are so simple but beautiful,” Nagahisa explained. “Similarly, Hikari and his friends have very few expressions, but hiding under that unassuming façade are vast emotions and ideas. And, as a fan of the Mega Man games, I used them as a design inspiration.”

As far as the songs the young group performs throughout the kaleidoscopic trip, the lyrics and music was jointly composed by Nagahisa and New York City band Love Spread. A total of 90 pieces are featured, including the title track “We Are Little Zombies” and closing tune “Zombies But Alive.”

Little Zombies perform a concert in front of neon lights of their logo Image: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Faithful to the project’s video game roots, all of the music was crafted using game console creation software such as Pop’n Music. For a lot of the musical arrangements, the collaborators brought in actual Game Boys and 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment Systems for the authentic sounds. In the movie, Hikari himself uses his handheld console as an instrument on stage.

A third of the way in, the Little Zombies showcase their musical talents for the first time in a jaw-dropping, long-take showstopper that took the production several days to set up. The three-minute wonder sees Hikari and company going from an underground parking garage to a rooftop, after making the acquaintance of a gang of homeless people, singing and playing on locations built with what appears to be recycled materials. Unlike the rest of the movie, the entire sequence was shot on an iPhone.

Nagahisa, his cast and crew, rehearsed the extremely difficult, one-shot sequence numerous times, but because it took so long to reset the elaborate set after each try, he was only able to shoot it once every two hours, for a total of five takes. Ultimately, the results fire up our senses as we witness the reckless desperation of the kids’ performance. “In that moment, I want you to see that, while they appear emotionless, they are desperately trying to convey something that’s within their souls.”

Attuned to that sentiment, the band’s costumes later in the plot, as they reach mainstream recognition, are made from trash. For Nagahisa the concept of “trash” or of being “disposed” stands as one of the film’s most relevant themes. “One person’s garbage can be an amazing treasure to another person, even if it’s something they don’t actually need,” he said. “Our four main characters might seem unnecessary to society, but by changing their perspective, they can be colorful, attractive, and wanted, yet, in reality, they are the same kids — they haven’t changed anything!” The repeated use of blue, green, red, white, and pink as the hues that define each of the Little Zombies members is another nod to video games, based on the outfits worn by heroes and wizards in the early Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games.

For Nagahisa, it was quite natural to depict children who do not openly express their sadness. He believes that grappling with sorrow requires immense physical energy and most kids can’t deal with it clearly since their environments are constantly changing. Their defense mechanisms enable them to keep up with life.

“I don’t deny the existence of the more dramatic children characters that are so regularly seen in other films, but I do think it’s strange that those are the one considered normal, because most kids are less emotional than movies have portrayed them to be,” he explained. “Most child actors are taught to be overly expressive and make use of heightened emotions to act.”

Due to this standard in entertainment, finding four young thespians who refrained from that behavior proved challenging. In his four leads — Ninomiya, Mondo Okumura, Satoshi Mizuno, and Sena Nakajima — Nagahisa found exceptions to the rule. “They were all beautiful, talented, and none of them ever thought too hard about ‘acting.’ They just did it,” he added.

In Nagahisa’s mind, his award-winning short “And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool,” which centered on four rebellious girls, and We Are Little Zombies are deeply connected in how they explore the dichotomy between adults (“creatures who’ve lost their magic and whimsy”) and children (“amazing, complicated beings). Both films suggest a freedom away from society’s expectations and common sense.

“Living in the now; should be the most important thing in the world and I will continue using this concept in different stories, over and over again.” If you pay attention, you’ll see that the characters from “Goldfish” briefly appear on a TV screen in We Are Little Zombies, which for Nagahisa means they are extensions of the same universe.

Within his fascinating worldview, Nagahisa seems to understand the concept of a “zombie” in two distinct manners: First, as one who spent 10 years of his adult life as a sales agent and planner for an advertising agency, a position that hindered his creative spirit. “At that job I was surrounded by zombies who had lost their will to live. On the other hand, I have two small children, who are always imagining things,” he said. “Children really are the perfect creatures, but they lose their hearts as they grow up, through a mixture of common sense and education.” In a way, he thinks, we all get a bit zombified as we are dragged by the demands of modern existence.

Then there’s the definition that closely resembles the characters in his debut, young people whose circumstances have numbed them but they continue to survive. Something that appears to have no life, but still functions. Yet, as he noted, that description is bestowed upon zombies from the perspective of breathing human. We, the living, shouldn’t judge those whose loss and tragedy has killed a part of them.

“Zombies may not look like they’re living, but perhaps they are thinking. Perhaps they are feeling. And we won’t know until we are bitten and become a zombie, ourselves,” said Nagahisa. “What I’m getting at here is that we humans can’t truly comprehend zombies—and that’s kind of a great symbol for trying to better understand the unknown. We have to live by accepting things that we cannot truly understand, things that are beyond us.”

That’s where video games come into play as beacons of a certain comfort for Nagahisa. If it’s not written in the code of the game of life for us to comprehend the positive and negative turns it takes, then we, the players — zombies or not — might as well play freely while it’s our turn.

“In real-life it’s important to act freely and in-the-moment without worrying about what your goals are. Think of life like a shitty video game that’s been placed on the most difficult setting. The game’s over when you die, so don’t spend your time trying to beat the level—just run around and see everything you want to see before the timer runs out.”

We Are Little Zombies is available to rent via virtual cinemas.