Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost: We Are Little Zombies (2020)

When a loved one dies, one of the hardest things to accept is their absence. Very often, the first emotional reaction is not one of overwhelming grief--instead one is consumed by a feeling of numbness. I experienced this myself when my father suddenly passed away. I didn't cry until a month later when I was suddenly overcome with what felt like a tidal wave of sadness while doing my laundry. I probably looked like a hysterical person sitting in the middle of the floor wailing over a pile of folded clothes. We Are Little Zombies (2020) is an exploration of the first stage of grief: denial.

The story follows four children who all have lost their parents in various ways. They serendipitously meet each other at a crematorium and discover that they all share the same feeling of emptiness. They proclaim themselves to be "little zombies" on account of their state of indifference and decide to hang out together and go on an adventure away from their homes and ultimately society. What point is there participating in a world that took away their families?

In the first act, the narrative is mostly from the point of view of Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) a boy who has spent his entire life wrapped up in video games. He carries a Game Boy like portable console with him everywhere, and his house is filled to the brim with games and systems. What sets We Are Little Zombies apart from other coming-of-age stories is the way it incorporates video game elements and aesthetic into the fabric of the film. The set-up mirrors classic JRPGs with the characters meeting up to form a party, gathering equipment to aid them in their quest, and eventually saving the world--the "world" in this case being their own perspective on life.

Director Makoto Nagahisa takes heavy inspiration from 8-bit and 16-bit RPGs with some splashes of Famicom-era adventure games for good measure. One sequence has the intrepid kids traveling around in single file a la games like Dragon Quest. The story is divided into segments which are referred to as "levels" and each one follows a different character and gives their backstory. This tribute to gaming doesn't stop at the visuals, it's complimented perfectly with an outstanding 8-bit chiptune soundtrack that would sound at home in any NES game. The vintage music is supplemented with a few catchy pop-punk songs performed by Little Zombies, the band that the children form in the second half of the film. Nagahisa composed the music in the film as well which is quite impressive.

Underneath the flashy visuals and editing, We Are Little Zombies is an extremely dark film that tackles a lot of troubling ideas and issues. The children are emotionally stunted to a degree that could be interpreted as sociopathic and the story takes them right up to the precipice of oblivion. The parents are not depicted as good people--some of them were abusive or absent. One sequence of abuse is shown under the guise of a "boss fight" with the child confronting his dad after hurting his mother and receiving a savage beating for his troubles complete with a Street Fighter II style YOU LOSE screen and a bloody pixelated face. Suicide is discussed openly, sexual abuse is hinted at, and one young girl's parents were viciously murdered. The tone of the film flips from whimsical to sinister constantly, but it manages to mostly feel cohesive. The last third of the film drags a tiny bit, but it wraps itself up with a beautiful and life affirming ending.

We Are Little Zombies is a creative and singular vision that is sorely missing from films as of late, and it's also a touching tale about finding the strength to go on with life after death. If you have working knowledge of vintage video games it will have more impact, but even if you don't, it is still an excellent coming-of-age story with fantastical visuals and its heart in the right place.