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Wī ā Ritoru Zonbīzu (We are Little Zombies)
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Makoto Nagahisa, Japan

Hikaro (Keita Ninomiya) looks up at the sky viewing a chimney-stack spewing grey smoke at the crematorium, he realizes he is now alone; both his parents are dead, and he feels like a zombie; no feelings, no tears. As these dark clouds are floating off like grey dragons in the sky, he wonders what is wrong with him. So why can’t he cry? Why does he feel this way? Within seconds, Hikaro’s life changes and the entire mood of Japanese director Makoto Nagahisa’s debut  film takes off exploding into an array of indescribably creative, symbolic wackiness. Hikaro soon connects to three 13-year-old protagonists, Ikuku (Satoshi Mizuno), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), and Ishi (Sena Nakajima)who are attending this traditional Japanese funeral of cremation. Black humor is in the minds of all three kids as they try to cope what has happened to them. They quickly become outsiders who can’t count on the adult world to help them in their grieving process. Nagahisa choses a difficult topic but through this new and dazzling approach makes the theme accessible to the Japanese culture who tend to keep their emotions on the inside. The film uses various techniques which includes at least three different kind of animation, from a painted paper-tiger behind bars, to old style quirky video games reminiscent of the 1983 Mario Bros. game, to a space ship travelling on quest. This energy packed film tells each character’s loss and how they come together to overcome their problems that they face together.

The most intriguing aspect of this film is the sound. Nagahisa takes us on an odyssey of sound beginning with Madame Butterfly’s opera to punk music to techno pop. We hear the heart-beat, the silence, the dialogue, all perfectly times and integrated to give a very in-depth view of the moment and time. The movie keeps our attention until the four kids form a neon-gaming-style rock band and the high pitched techno-sounds music goes on a bit to long for the western viewer’s ears. I am sure it is the perfect length for the Japanese audience. In my opinion Nagahisa is one of the most creative directors at this festival. His zany ideas, and perceptions, and music knowledge attempts to tackle a difficult topic shows his courage and a strong vision. The reality of this film takes us on a continuous rollercoaster ride which ends abruptly and it’s time to jump back into our reality. Nagahisa first short film was AND SO WE PUT GOLDFISH IN THE POOL which won the Sundance short film grand prize in 2017.  He is someone who has so many ideas growing out of his head that there is no doubt that we will be seeing more of him in the future. (SRS)

Interview by Shelly Schoeneshoefer

Japanese director Makoto Nagahisa and actor Keita Ninomiya

For MN: Since the film deals with children confronting death and there is a reference to Fukushima, did that incident have an influence on this film?

For the first scene he didn’t have the Fukushima Nuclear accident in mind. The stack and the chimney and the smoke belong to a very typical traditional Japanese style funeral.  He doe mention Fukushima later on but did not want to give it too much meaning: He looked at it in a flat perspective, to say neither bad nor good.

For MN: This is the second time you used fish in your film, what does this fish symbolize?

The fighting fish is a lonely fish because they have to be kept by themselves. So he finds friends to fight and survive with and in reality they are people who don’t have such friends to connect with to survive. He wanted to cheer them up to show them the fish can survive in the murky water.

For KN: How was it for Keita to play a character who is confronted with the death of his parents? What did he learn from it?

He found that there was a lot of Hikaro he could identify with and if his parents were to pass away he would feel very sad but at the same time he would become kind of a zombie himself. He thinks that the important message of the film is that life goes on, so there can be hope in the future and he tried to keep that in mind when playing his character.

For MN: The film sound track was unbelievable. The sound track is complex which including opera, punk music, techno music, dialogue and the human heart beat, how did you develop it? Do you have a musical background?

He spent 3 to 4 months on just the sound. He was very specific with the sound itself. Where to start the sound when to end it, He feels that it is not just the sound but the dialog and all of it together makes it into one big operetta work. He wrote the script with this in mind and  is very appreciative that I noticed this particular part in his work. He wanted to become a Jazz musician until he was in his early 20’s is his background.

For KN: Was it hard to learn to sing “We are Little Zombies” in English?

It was very difficult so he had to practice a lot.

For MN: What was it signifying when the girl covers her ears?

The movie was about four children, but he wanted the audience to feel like they were the fifth the audience. He wanted that the entire audience was one person, one brain.He wanted to audience to feel like they were the fifth ear.

For MN: Why do the boys see Ishi as a mother figure? What do they expect that from her?

He purposely chose the children age to be around thirteen since they have not started puberty yet. They are not seeing the opposite sex sexually. So the kids see her as a mother figure and that this is the last age where they still have respect for the female being. The girl doesn’t care what the boys think because she had to grow up on her own. He tries to show the difference between boys and girls in their development. He wanted to show this unstable stage before they start to think about their gender.

For NM: Hikaro struggles with his parent’s death. At some point he has the realization that if he had been with them he would not be there, he would be gone. He seems more focused on his mother’s death then his fathers? He drops a picture of his mother, the flash backs are more to do with his mother. Hikaro struggles more with his mother’s death than his fathers. Is there still a traditional role of the strong “Mother” in Japan or has that changed with modern times?

He wanted to emphasise how the mother figure is the more significant parenting figure even if they have children or not, there is still this maternal instinct that should be respected and he wanted to touch on that as a subject. In Japan there is an idea that to really love your mom I” a mommy’s boy” is uncool but he wanted to use it as a cute expression to say it’s okay to love your mother.

For MN: You have an extensive collection of quick-wit expressions and jokes, what are your plans to do it with them?

He likes to write down jokes and dialogs. In fact he has thousands of them in his phone and he think he has enough to make another film with them. That is his plan.

For KN: What would you like to do in the future?

He definitely wants to continue in acting and since he is interested in music just like Makoto Nagahisa, he hopes to work with him again.