We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ, Makoto Nagahisa, 2019)

Little Zombies poster“Reality’s too stupid to cry over” affirms the deadpan narrator of Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies (ウィーアーリトルゾンビーズ), so why does he feel so strange about feeling nothing much at all? Taking its cues from the French New Wave by way of ‘60s Japanese avant-garde, the first feature from the award winning And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool director is a riotous affair of retro video game nostalgia and deepening ennui, but it’s also a gentle meditation on finding the strength to keep moving forward despite all the pain, emptiness, and disappointment of being alive.

The “Little Zombies”, as we will later discover, are the latest tween viral pop sensation led by bespectacled 13-year-old Hikari (Keita Ninomiya). Recounting his own sorry tale of how his emotionally distant parents died in a freak bus accident, Hikari then teams up with three other similarly bereaved teens after meeting at the local crematorium where each of their parents is also making their final journey. Inspired by a retro RPG with the same title, the gang set off on an adventure to claim their independence by revisiting the sites of all their grief before making themselves intentionally homeless and forming an emo (no one says that anymore, apparently) grunge band to sing about their emotional numbness and general inability to feel.

Very much of the moment, but rooted in nostalgia for ages past, Little Zombies is another in a long line of Japanese movies asking serious questions about the traditional family. The reason Hikari can’t cry is, he says, because crying would be pointless. Babies cry for help, but no one is going to help him. Emotionally neglected by his parents who, when not working, were too wrapped up in their own drama to pay much attention to him, Hikari’s only connection to familial love is buried in the collection of video games they gave him in lieu of physical connection, his spectacles a kind of badge of that love earned through constant eyestrain.

The other kids, meanwhile, have similarly detached backgrounds – Takemura (Mondo Okumura) hated his useless and violent father but can’t forgive his parents for abandoning him in double suicide, Ishii (Satoshi) Mizuno) resented his careless dad but misses the stir-fries his mum cooked for him every day, and Ikuko (Sena Nakaijma) may have actually encouraged the murder of her parents by a creepy stalker while secretly pained over their rejection of her in embarrassment over her tendency to attract unwanted male attention even as child. The kids aren’t upset in the “normal” way because none of their relationships were “normal” and so their homes were never quite the points of comfort and safety one might have assumed them to be.

Orphaned and adrift, they fare little better. The adult world is as untrustworthy as ever and it’s not long before they begin to feel exploited by the powers intent on making them “stars”. Nevertheless, they continue with their deadpan routines as the “soulless” Little Zombies until their emotions, such as they are, begin inconveniently breaking through. “Despair is uncool”, but passion is impossible in a world where nothing really matters and all relationships are built on mutual transaction.

Mimicking Hikari’s retro video game, the Zombies pursue their quest towards the end level boss, passing through several stages and levelling up as they go, but face the continuing question of whether to continue with the game or not. Save and quit seems like a tempting option when there is no hope in sight, but giving in to despair would to be to let the world win. The only prize on offer is life going on “undramatically”, but in many ways that is the best reward one can hope for and who’s to say zombies don’t have feelings too? Dead but alive, the teens continue their adventure with heavy hearts but resolved in the knowledge that it’s probably OK to be numb to the world but also OK not to be. “Life is like a shit game”, but you keep playing anyway because sometimes it’s kind of fun. A visual tour de force and riot of ironic avant-garde post-modernism, We Are Little Zombies is a charmingly nostalgic throwback to the anything goes spirit of the bubble era and a strangely joyous celebration of finding small signs of hope amid the soulless chaos of modern life.


We Are Little Zombies was screened as part of the 2019 Nippon Connection Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Makoto Nagahisa’s short And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool

Music videos for We Are Little Zombies and Zombies But Alive

Birds Without Names (彼女がその名を知らない鳥たち, Kazuya Shiraishi, 2017)

Birds Without Names poster“Human beings are lonely by nature”, a statement offered by someone who could well think he’s lying but accidentally tells the truth in Kazuya Shiraishi’s Birds Without Names (彼女がその名を知らない鳥たち, Kanojo ga Sono Na wo Shiranai Toritachi). Loneliness, of an existential more than physical kind, eats away at the souls of those unable to connect with what it is they truly want until they eventually destroy themselves through explosive acts of irrepressible rage or, perhaps, of love. The bad look good and the good look bad but appearances can be deceptive, as can memory, and when it comes to the truths of emotional connection the sands are always shifting.

Towako (Yu Aoi), an unmarried woman in her 30s, does not work and spends most of her time angrily ringing up customer service departments to complain about things in the hope of getting some kind of compensation. She lives with an older man, Jinji (Sadao Abe) – a construction worker, who is completely devoted to her and provides both financial and emotional support despite Towako’s obvious contempt for him. Referring to him as a “slug”, Towako consistently rejects Jinji’s amorous advances and resents his, in her view, overly controlling behaviour in which he rings her several times a day and keeps general tabs on her whereabouts.

Depressed and on edge, Towako’s life takes a turn when she gets into a dispute with an upscale jewellery store over a watch repair and ends up beginning an affair with the handsome salesman who visits her apartment with a selection of possible replacements. Around the same time, Towako rings an ex-boyfriend’s number in a moment of weakness only to reconsider and hangup right away. The next day a policeman arrives and informs her that they’ve been monitoring her ex’s phone because his wife reported him missing five years ago and he’s not been seen since.

Towako views Jinji’s behaviour as possessive and his continuing devotion pathetic in his eagerness to debase himself for her benefit. Her sister Misuzu (Mukku Akazawa), however, thinks Jinji is good for her and berates Towako for her ill treatment of him. Despite the fact that Towako’s relationship with her ex, Kurosaki (Yutaka Takenouchi), ended eight years previously, Misuzu is paranoid Towako is still seeing him on the sly and will eventually try to get back together with him. Misuzu does not want this to happen because Kurosaki beat Towako so badly she landed in hospital, but despite this and worse, Towako cannot let the spectre of Kurosaki and the happiness promised in their earliest days go. She continues to pine for him, looking for other Kurosakis in the form of other handsome faces selling false promises and empty words.

Mizushima (Mukku Akazawa), the watch salesman, is just Towako’s type – something which Jinji seems to know when he violently pushes a Mizushima look-alike off a busy commuter train just because he saw the way Towako looked at him. Daring to kiss her when she abruptly starts crying while looking at his replacement watches, Mizushima spins her a line about an unhappy marriage and his craving for solitude which he sates through solo travel – most recently to a remote spot in the desert and cave they call an underground womb. Mizushima describes himself as a lonely soul and claims to have found a kindred spirit in Towako whose loneliness it was that first sparked his interest. Like all the men in the picture, Mizushima is not all he seems and there is reason to disbelieve much of what he says but he may well be correct in his assessment of Towako’s need for impossible connections with emotionally unavailable men who only ever cause her pain.

It just so happens that Kurosaki’s apparent disappearance happened around the time Towako began dating Jinji. Seeing as his behaviour is often controlling, paranoid and, as seen in the train incident, occasionally violent, Towako begins to suspect he may be involved in the mysterious absence of her one true love. Then again, Towako may well need protecting from herself and perhaps, as Misuzu seems to think, Jinji is just looking out for her. The deeper Jinji’s devotion descends, the more Towako’s contempt for him grows but the suspicion that he may be capable of something far darker provokes a series of strange and unexpected reactions in the already unsteady Towako.

A dark romance more than noirish mystery,  Birds Without Names takes place in a gloomy Osaka soaked in disappointment and post-industrial grime where the region’s distinctive accent loses its sometimes soft, comedic edge for a relentless bite in which words reject the connection they ultimately seek. Rejection, humiliation, degradation, and a hopeless sense of incurable loneliness push already strained minds towards an abyss but there’s a strange kind of purity in the intensity of selfless love which, uncomfortably enough, offers salvation in a final act of destruction.


 Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2018.

Also screening at:

  • Firstsite (Colchester) 9 February 2018
  • HOME (Manchester) 12 February 2018
  • Watershed (Bristol) – 13 February 2018
  • Exeter Phoenix – 27 February 2018
  • Depot (Lewes) – 6 March 2018
  • Filmhouse (Edinburgh) – 8 March 2018

International trailer (English subtitles)

Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2015)

journey to the shoreTime is an ocean, but it ends at the shore. Kiyoshi Kurosawa neatly reverses Dylan’s poetic phrasing as his shoreline is less a place of endings but of beginnings or at least a representation of the idea that every beginning is born from the death of that which preceded it. Adapted from a novel by Kazumi Yumoto, Journey to the Shore (岸辺の旅, Kishibe no Tabi) takes its grief stricken, walking dead heroine on a long journey of the soul until she can finally put to rest a series of wandering ghosts and begin to live once again, albeit at her own tempo.

The film begins with three years widowed Mizuki (Eri Fukatsu) giving a piano lesson to a little girl whose mother goes on to enquire about her daughter’s progress. Wouldn’t it be better if she could learn something a little more cheerful once in a while? Reconsidering, the mother reflects that uptempo doesn’t quite suit Mizuki, and she’s right – it doesn’t. After impulse buying some flour and baking a few Japanese sweets at home, Mizuki receives an unexpected visit from her deceased husband, Yusuke (Tadanobu Asano), who drowned himself at sea.

Somehow unsurprised and pausing only to remind him to remove his shoes, Mizuki gives Yusuke some of the dumplings then retires to bed, only to wake up the next morning and wonder if she dreamt the strange events of the night before but, sure enough, Yusuke is still very much present. Promising to show her some of the beautiful places he discovered on his long odyssey home to her, Yusuke takes Mizuki on a reverse honeymoon in celebration and in mourning of all they once were to each other.

In each place they travel to, Mizuki and Yusuke help the people there deal with their own walking ghosts. Yusuke is not the only returnee as they discover with a lonely old newspaper seller who doesn’t appear to be aware that he died a long time ago. Walking dead in a realer sense than Mizuki or some of the other depressives they meet along the way who are still living but not exactly alive, Mr Shimakage is a spirit held in place by an inability to reconcile himself with the actions of his past and has brought his feelings of self loathing and regret with him into the afterlife.

Sometimes it’s the living that pin the dead, holding them close with guilt, regret, love or loneliness. If the film has a central tenet, it’s that the past has its place, and it’s not among the living. At one point Mizuki says that perhaps it’s better to leave some things unresolved. Yusuke asks her if she’s really OK with that, and she seems to reconsider but in the end that’s the way it has to be. There are no final solutions, the answers are not at the back of the book. In the end, the best you can do is try to understand and learn to be OK with everything you do and do not know about yourself and about those who are no longer here to tell their stories. Mizuki also says that she hated to practice piano as a child, but her teacher always told her to pay attention to her own rhythm. The music will always be lifeless, until you learn to hear your own song.

Kurosawa creates a beautifully ethereal world, held in a tension between the spirit realm and the everyday. Playing with lighting levels in extremely interesting ways, he allows the supernatural and natural to flow into each other, jostling and merging like waves and shore. Travelling from the grey, ordered and utilitarian city to the unruly nature of the countryside with its ancient, crashing waterfalls and beautiful, if lonely, coastlines we move from static and lifeless existence to a place of perpetual potential as we let go of one thing so that we might grasp another.

As much as Journey to the Shore is bound up with death, it necessarily speaks of life, too. During one of his strange lessons for the village folk, Yusuke delivers some meditations on science and philosophy to the effect that the world is built of nothingness but that nothingness does not lack meaning. He tells us that we are all dying, the universe was born billions of years ago and will end one day just as our species may end when the planet’s temperature exceeds that which we can endure or galaxies collide and take us down with them. For all of that, the universe is young, still growing, still expanding, and we are so lucky to have been born now when there is still so much ahead of us. This is a time of infinite beginnings. Starting again means letting go, but sooner or later you have to step off the shore of this self imposed purgatory and return to the great ocean which is life.


Journey to the Shore is availble on dual format DVD and blu-ray in the UK courtesty of Eureka Masters of Cinema.