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

Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ, Takashi Miike, 2016)

terra-formarsTerra Formars – Terror for Mars? It’s all about terror in the quest for terra and reform in Takashi Miike’s bug hunt extravaganza adaptation of Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana’s manga. In fact, much of the plot is more or less the same as Aliens, but our motley crew is not a crack team of space marines headed by a recently awoken from stasis super survivor who proves unexpectedly dextrous in a robotic forklift exoskeleton, but a collection of human “bugs”, parasitical criminals who’ve each been made an offer they can’t refuse. High budget and boasting a starry cast, Terra Formars (テラフォーマーズ) definitely falls into the throwaway Miike category and proves curiously dull despite its ridiculous set up, but then if you happen to be into bugs there’s really a lot to like here.

Running through the Tokyo of 2597 which seems to be some kind of Blade Runner theme park, Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) and Nanao (Emi Takei) are trying to escape the oddly bug-like police only to be captured and taken to the lair of mad scientist and all round fabulous guy, Honda (Shun Oguri). He has a proposal – join his mission to Mars and get a large amount of money instead of getting a death sentence for the murder they were on the run for. Reluctantly, they agree but there are several things Honda forgot to tell them – they’ve been given alien bug DNA which gives them super powers, and the “cockroaches” they’re supposed to be exterminating have mutated into giant humanoid creatures capable of planning and tool use. Oh, and everyone on the first mission died horribly.

By 2597, the world has become massively overpopulated but luckily enterprising scientists had come up with a plan for terraforming Mars through the use of various kinds of moss distributed by millions of cockroaches. The terraforming process is now complete and it’s time for colonisation to begin but no one really thought about what to do with all their insectile helpers. No longer “mere” bugs, the highly evolved Roaches are now the (not quite) indigenous peoples of Mars. Miike does not push the colonisation narrative (and nobly attempts to mitigate the elements which have seen the original source material decried as racist) but you can’t get away from the fact that the Roaches have every right to fight back and defend their homeland from an invading force wielding superior technology and hellbent on mass extermination.

Honda’s big idea (well, one of his big ideas as it turns out) was to send a bug to catch a bug. In some senses, all of the assembled bait could be regarded as human pests – petty criminals and reprobates offering nothing of value to society. Given the pace of the film and the subsequent carnage, none of them is given much time to shine so we mostly remember them by their epithets – creepy serial killer, hikkokomori hacker, teenage prostitution ringleader, illegal immigrant, former yakuza and dodgy ex-police officer – in other words, people with no options that no one will miss. They’ve each been more or less forced into this position by their peculiar circumstances as exploited by Honda and his team who have given them a “risky” operation involving alien DNA which has given them bug-like powers from super sharp pincers to venomous stings.

Bug hunt is an apt way to describe the subsequent action as the crew activate their inner insects and prepare to squash some Roaches only to die in various painful looking ways, usually by losing their heads. There’s a distinctly Aliens undertone to the entire enterprise, even borrowing a key plot revelation from the film’s ‘80s anti-corporate message but it’s all so unimportant next to the bug killing that it most likely gets missed. Repetitious in the extreme, the two hour runtime is stretched to breaking point with battle after battle of mostly losses as the Roaches effortlessly swat our puny human heroes.

Production design is the most impressive element but even this borrows heavily from such similarly themed genre landmarks as Blade Runner, Aliens, Total Recall, and to a lesser extent Starship Troopers. Ultra camp from Honda’s obsession with his fashionable outfits to the Ultraman style practical effects of the bug suits, Terra Formars later fails to capitalise on its surreal and ridiculous premise, remaining disappointingly straightforward in terms of tone for much of the running time. Keen entomologists will perhaps enjoy the animated info sequences introducing the various beetles, flies, and other assorted creatures as well as those same traits being acted out by our heroes but for everyone else Terra Formars may prove a rather dull expedition to the previously red planet, now a green and pleasant land but very definitely inhabited and defended. Plenty of bug splatting action with only minimally disquieting overtones but a sorry lack of excitement, Terra Formars is a disappointingly by the numbers sci-fi effort from the usually exuberant Miike but does at least look good.


Original trailer (No subtitles – massive spoilers)

Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Akiko Ohku, 2007)

tokyo-serendipityCities are often serendipitous places, prone to improbable coincidences no matter how large or densely populated they may be. Tokyo Serendipity (恋するマドリ, Koisuru Madori) takes this quality of its stereotypically “quirky” city to the limit as a young art student finds herself caught up in other people’s unfulfilled romance only to fall straight into the same trap herself. Its tale may be an unlikely one, but director Akiko Ohku neatly subverts genre norms whilst resolutely sticking to a mid-2000s indie movie blueprint.

Yui Aoki (Yui Aragaki) is in search of a new apartment. She had been living in an unusual old fashioned building with beautiful stained-glass windows, but her sister’s in line for a shotgun marriage and if that weren’t trouble enough the apartment is set for demolition. Living on her own for the very first time, Yui moves into a smallish modern apartment in a building filled with various eccentric residents.

One in particular catches Yui’s attention – her mysterious upstairs neighbour, Takashi (Ryuhei Matsuda). By coincidence, Yui ends up working with Takashi at his lab where she learns he’s still broken up about a girlfriend that left him flat without even a word of goodbye. Remembering she left something behind at her old place she ends up meeting the new tenant, Atsuko (Rinko Kikuchi), and striking up a friendship with her over a shared interest in homemade furnishings. The coincidences continue as Yui discovers she and Atsuko have accidentally swapped apartments! Through this odd chain of events Yui also figures out that Atsuko is Takashi’s long lost love, but is hopelessly trapped in the middle, unsure of whether she should reveal this information to either party. Of course, her developing feelings for both Atsuko and Takashi place her in a series of difficult positions.

Tokyo Serendipity was sponsored by an interior design company and so it’s no surprise that the film makes quite a lot out of its production design. The fashion choices are very much of the time and favour quirky, individual aesthetics rather than an Ikea-esque off the peg minimalism. The original apartment which is soon to by bulldozed is an artist’s dream with its hidden fireplace, old fashioned furniture, stained glass windows and well lit interior. Broadly inspirational in this regard, it’s a thrifty kind of homestyle which prizes recycled materials and repurposed furnishings as opposed to the trendy high price surroundings of other parts of the city.

Like many other films of its kind from this era, Tokyo Serendipity adopts a natural, if occasionally surreal, approach filmed with a deadpan camera. The film’s one repeated large scale gag – a group of lucha libre wrestlers who work as removal men during the day, is a good example of this as their not improbable existence somehow seems oddly funny. They drop things but only in the ring – so they say, each of them well built men treating Yui’s precious goods as daintily as children using real china at a tea party. The humour could best be described as subtle, yet does succeed in raising a smile here and there.

Smiling turns out to be the film’s main message. In fact Ohku even states that her intention in making the film was solely to leave people with a smile of their faces – something which she broadly achieves. Atsuko, a slightly lost middle aged woman, claims she became an architect as she wanted to build a house with everybody smiling – something Yui echoes as she comes to a few conclusions of her own nearing the end of the film. However, Atsuko’s desire for harmony in all things is one she’s never been able to fulfil as childhood abandonment has left her with lingering commitment issues. Simply put, she always leaves first. Interestingly enough, Yui’s burgeoning romance takes a backseat to her growing friendship with Atsuko and a half-formed acknowledgment of middle-aged regrets she’s still to young to fully understand.

Despite amassing almost all of the conventional romantic comedy/drama motifs from a last minute dash to the airport and misdirected letters to an embarrassing scene where a relative is mistaken for a lover, Ohku rejects the romantic model as her central character wisely recognises exactly where she stands in this awkward situation and makes a sensible decision motivated by the best interests of both of her friends. Straightforwardly indie in style, Ohku keeps the quirk on a low simmer but manages to make her heightened reality seem perfectly natural. An unusual coming of age film trapped inside an indie romance, Tokyo Serendipity is like one of the tiny hidden spaces the film seems to like so much, though upon opening the door some will be more impressed with what they find than others.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

69 (Lee Sang-il, 2004)

69Ryu Murakami is often thought of as the foremost proponent of Japanese extreme literature with his bloody psychological thriller/horrifying love story Audition adapted into a movie by Takashi Miike which itself became the cornerstone of a certain kind of cinema. However, Murakami’s output is almost as diverse as Miike’s as can be seen in his 1987 semi-autobiographical novel 69. A comic coming of age tale set in small town Japan in 1969, 69 is a forgiving, if occasionally self mocking, look back at what it was to grow up on the periphery of massive social change.

The swinging sixties may have been in full swing in other parts of the world with free love, rock and roll and revolution the buzz words of the day but if you’re 17 years old and you live in a tiny town maybe these are all just examples of exciting things that don’t have an awful lot to do with you. If there’s one thing 69 really wants you know it’s that teenage boys are always teenage boys regardless of the era and so we follow the adventures of a typical 17 year old, Ken (Satoshi Tsumabuki), whose chief interest in life is, you guessed it, girls.

Ken has amassed a little posse around himself that he likes to amuse by making up improbable fantasies about taking off to Kyoto and sleeping with super models (oddly they almost believe him). He talks a big about Godard and Rimbaud, posturing as an intellectual, but all he’s trying to do is seem “cool”. He likes rock music (but maybe only because it’s “cool” to like rock music) and becomes obsessed with the idea of starting his own Woodstock in their tiny town but mostly only because girls get wild on drugs and take their tops off at festivals! When the object of his affection states she likes rebellious guys like the student protestors in Tokyo, Ken gets the idea of barricading the school and painting incomprehensible, vaguely leftist jargon all over the walls as a way of getting her attention (and a degree of kudos for himself).

69 is a teen coming of age comedy in the classic mould but it would almost be a mistake to read it as a period piece. Neither director Lee Sang-il nor any of the creative team are children of the ‘60s so they don’t have any of the nostalgic longing for an innocent period of youth such as perhaps Murakami had when writing the novel (Murakami himself was born in 1952). The “hero”, Ken, is a posturing buffoon in the way that many teenage boys are, but the fact that he’s so openly cynical and honest about his motivations makes him a little more likeable. Ken’s “political action” is merely a means of youthful rebellion intended to boost his own profile and provide some diversion at this relatively uninteresting period of his life before the serious business of getting into university begins and then the arduous yet dell path towards a successful adulthood.

His more intellectual, bookish and handsome buddy Adama (Masanobu Ando) does undergo something of a political awakening after the boys are suspended from school and he holes up at home reading all kinds of serious literature but even this seems like it might be more a kind of stir crazy madness than a general desire to enact the revolution at a tiny high school in the middle of nowhere. Ken’s artist father seems oddly proud of his son’s actions, as if they were part of a larger performance art project rather than the idiotic, lust driven antics of a teenage boy but even if the kids pay lip service to opposing the war in Vietnam which they see on the news every night, it’s clear they don’t really care as much as about opposing a war as they do about being seen to have the “cool” opinion of the day.

Lee takes the period out of the equation a little giving it much less weight than in Murakami’s source novel which is very much about growing up in the wake of a countercultural movement that is actually happening far away from you (and consequently seems much more interesting and sophisticated). Were it not for the absence of mobile phones and a slightly more innocent atmosphere these could easily have been the teenagers of 2003 when the film was made. This isn’t to criticise 69 for a lack of aesthetic but to point out that whereas Murakami’s novel was necessarily backward looking, Lee’s film has half an eye on the future.

Indeed, there’s far less music than one would expect in the soundtrack which includes a few late ‘60s rock songs but none of the folk/protest music that the characters talk about. At one point Ken talks about Simon & Garfunkel with his crush Matsui (Rina Ohta) who reveals her love for the song At the Zoo so Ken claims to have all of the folk duo’s records and agrees to lend them to her though his immediately asking to borrow money from his parents to buy a record suggests he was just pretending to be into a band his girl likes. Here the music is just something which exists to be cool or uncool rather than an active barrier between youth and age or a talisman of a school of thought.

Lee’s emphasis is firmly with the young guys and their late adolescence growth period, even if it seems as if there’s been little progress by the end of the film. There’s no real focus on their conflict with the older generation and the movie doesn’t even try to envisage the similar transformation among the girls outside of the way the boys see them which is necessarily immature. That said, the film is trying to cast a winking, wry look back at youth in all its eager to please insincerity. It’s all so knowingly silly, posturing to enact a revolution even though there’s really no need for one in this perfectly pleasant if slightly dull backwater town. They’ll look back on all this and laugh one day that they could have cared so much about about being cool because they didn’t know who they were, and we can look back with them, and laugh at ourselves too.


Ryu Murakami’s original novel is currently available in the UK from Pushkin Press translated by Ralph McCarthy and was previously published in the US in the same translation by Kodansha USA (but seems to be out of print).

Unsubtitled trailer:

and just because I love it, Simon & Garfunkel At the Zoo

Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (UK Anime Network Review)

Screen-Shot-2014-12-29-at-10.49.38I wrote this getting on for a year ago when the film was screened at Sundance London (which is apparently dead now) but seeing as it’s getting a proper release by Soda Pictures from 20th February here it is again! Hit the jump to read my review over at UK Anime Network.


Famously, the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo begins with a black screen and a caption telling us that everything we’re about to see is based on real events that took place in Minnesota in 1987. What is perhaps less well known is that this is an out and out lie – a manifestation of the Coens’ strange sense of humour that’s just really there as a sort of in joke to mess with the viewer’s head. When a Japanese woman was found wandering around a wintery Minnesota, underdressed for the cold weather and pointing to a hand drawn map of tree next to a road, it wasn’t long before someone connected her actions to the famous movie. When she was found dead in the woods some days later, an urban myth was born about a crazy Japanese lady who froze to death looking for Steve Buscemi’s buried suitcase. As it so often does, the truth turned out to be much sadder and more ordinary than the legend suggests and that this poor woman became the butt of a global joke seems cruel and unfair. Now the original myth has spawned another story of its own – of Kumiko, who sees herself like a Spanish Conquistador who alone has learned of vast riches hidden deep in the new world.

Kumiko is a 29 year old office lady from Tokyo who lives alone in a tiny apartment aside from her pet rabbit Bunzo. As she goes about her everyday life she looks worn out, like someone who’s been carrying a heavy burden for a long time. She barley speaks to anyone and resents her boss so much she almost spits in his tea before thinking better of it. As it turns out one of the reasons she looks so tired is that she spends every night sat in front of her ancient TV scouring an old VHS of the movie Fargo (which she found in a cave buried under a pile of rocks at the end of a previous treasure hunt) for clues as to where Steve Buscemi buried his money. When her boss calls her in one day to ask why it is she always looks so miserable and points out, in a nice avuncular way, that 29 is really far too old for an office lady things have come to a crisis point. Using his company card she’s booked herself on a flight to Minneapolis armed only with her hand embroidered map and unshaken faith that her treasure exists and is hers alone to find.

Of course, her delusion is ridiculous for a multitude of reasons: to begin with, it’s obviously a constructed film – not a documentary so even if the events were real how would you know they recreated the exact burial spot in their movie version. Secondly, why would they have done that and then left the actual money where it was. Thirdly, the money was supposedly buried in 1987 – surely someone else would have come up with a similar idea in the intervening fifteen years and found the money already, wouldn’t they? Fourthly, he only buried it in the snow. Snow melts. How could anyone believe this? The film opens with Kumiko following another of her intricately made hand embroidered maps that results in her finding the fateful tape as if she alone had been handed some kind of divine revelation. Accordingly she pours all of her energy into divining its holy secrets. Hers is a literal leap of faith – she simply believes in it even though we ‘know’ it’s absurd.

What would make someone cling on to this kind of bizarre idea as their only true hope of salvation? We’re never given very much backstory, but it seems that somewhere along the way Kumiko’s life diverged from the one she wanted to live and ever since then she’s been treading water. Her mother rings her periodically to try and convince her to move back home ‘until she gets married’ whilst asking all sorts of questions about her love life and career that Kumiko would rather not answer. At work she’s the odd one out in the office as generally young women either decide to leave and get married or pursue a more demanding career long before Kumiko’s almost ancient 29. She keeps herself apart from her colleagues and barely speaks to them which is fine because they think of her as a creepy old lady anyway. She does eventually agree to meet an old school friend for coffee but bolts once left alone in a cafe with her friend’s five year old daughter. It’s almost as if Kumiko herself feels she’s failed and is too ashamed to interact with other people. Faced with her friend’s successful home life with a healthy young daughter compared to Kumiko’s own dreary, lonely existence it’s not difficult to see how loneliness and frustrated desperation could lead to a state of psychosis. If she can just prove it, show everyone she has a destiny – something she alone is supposed to do then they’d all see.

Once she reaches America things begin to take a darker turn. Dressed only in her usual blue dress and little red hoodie, she’s like Red Riding Hood stepping off alone into the woods. She hasn’t brought winter clothes, cash or even made a proper plan of how to actually get to Fargo. She meets some nice people along the way – a lonely old lady who means well has almost kidnapped the poor girl and keeps trying to thrust James Clavell’s Shogun at her, and a truly decent policeman who can see there’s something wrong but is prevented from helping by the impenetrable language barrier. Every time it seems as if there might be a better way out of this the door is cruelly slammed in Kumiko’s face and left entirely alone in a strange land there really is nothing else for her to do than trudge on in hope of finding her treasure. Kumiko could so easily have been a series of crazy lady tics and quirks but thanks to Kikuchi’s extremely nuanced performance the infinite sadness of her story is completely laid bare. All this happened, more or less – mostly less in this case, but there is truth in this story. The world is full of lonely people whose minds have turned in on themselves through having nowhere left to run. Kumiko the Treasure Hunter is an existential tragedy that nevertheless is shot through with enough charm and whimsy to make its often unpalatable message easy to digest. A strange fairytale for adults, Kumiko’s story is heartbreakingly bleak but it’s also immensely beautiful.