We are Little Zombies (2019) by Makoto Nagahisa

After Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents die in a bus accident, he meets three other children at the crematorium who have likewise lost their parents, through suicide, murder and in a house fire. The four form an unlikely friendship, united by tragedy, and head out without any real plan of what they will do next. They return to each of their homes in turn, recovering items they have left behind, and reliving the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. While sitting around in a slum building populated by homeless individuals, they decide to form a band and are picked up by a talent scout who happens by while they are performing. As the “Little Zombies” they soon enjoy huge popularity with the disaffected youth of Japan, but it seems as though not even stardom will puncture their sense of detachment from the world around them.

“We are Little Zombies” is a film with a dark sense of humour, beginning from the opening scenes at the crematorium. While most films dealing with bereavement would show an emotionally tumultuous coming-to-terms with loss, this film takes the polar opposite approach. Instead it shows the characters, especially Hikari, as completely unphased by what has happened, unable to cry over his parents who were cold and distant in life. Instead he is permanently lost in the otherworld of his handheld video games. Likewise, the other characters deal with their situation stoically, death having seemingly little consequence for those who are left. Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa shows huge creativity in this idiosyncratic film, with the use of a digital 8-bit soundtrack and camera angles giving the feel of a  videogame (at times even cutting to game graphics that represent the four main characters). There is a sense that anything could happen as characters talk direct to camera, dream sequences and inner monologues interrupt the action, and fantasy increasingly intrudes into their realities. As the film progresses, the bizarre situations only increase. This sense of anarchic surrealism is in keeping with the youthful protagonists. They look on calmly as the world about them grows increasingly strange. The songs are catchy and the jokes are good. The four leads (Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Okumura Mondo, and Sena Nakajima) do a fantastic job, oddly compelling in their unemotional response to their parents deaths and charismatic in their interplay as a group of friends. The music, composed by the director, is great, playing on everything from videogame themes to loops of shop music and classical pieces.

The film takes an unconventional approach to the themes of loss and grief. The characters all seem emotionally detached from the world, whether because they genuinely lack compassion or are struggling to come to terms with their experiences. The loss of their parents has untethered them from the usual coping mechanisms of children. They are all at sea and rather than dealing with the death of their parents they have isolated themselves emotionally. However, this comes at the cost of a loss of direction. They live for minor accomplishments, similar to those achievements of video games. The structure of the film, as “stages” and “missions”, highlights this lack of an overarching purpose in their lives. It is in the end a film that is about life and what people live for. The deaths early on are a stark reminder that there is in the end little purpose to life in itself outside of what people can create for themselves. “We are Little Zombies” is a quirky film, revelling in its black surrealist humour, but with a great deal of heart beneath the surface.

Mirai (2018) by Mamoru Hosoda

Kun is a feisty two-year old, obsessed with trains, living with his parents and their dog. When his parents arrive home with his baby sister Mirai, Kun is initially ecstatic about the prospect of a new member of the family. However, he soon realises that the attention he was receiving is now being given to his sister. Feeling left out, he begins acting up, with angry or tearful outbursts at the unfairness of his situation. When he goes out into the garden he is whisked away on flights of fancy, meeting various figures from his family in different guises or at different stages of their life. These figures each teach Kun a valuable life lesson.

Director Mamoru Hosoda (Wolf Children, The Boy and The Beast) is no stranger to stories about the pain of growing up. In “Mirai” he takes a look at a very young character, Kun, and how children can often feel ignored or side-lined with the arrival of a younger sibling. The situations shown in the film will be familiar to those with siblings, or parents raising young children, with temper tantrums and everyday problems running a household. The film itself seems to be aimed at a younger demographic, both in its sense of humour and in the instructive adventures Kun goes on. It has something of a fairytale feel, with the young boy going on a journey of discovery and coming back more mature and enlightened. The animation is enjoyable and the team capture the motion of children and animals well. It is interesting to see the majority of the film take place in a single location, the family home, and as it goes on you get a real sense of place and almost come to know the house as well as the characters. There is also some excellent use of computer graphics and modern techniques, such as in rendering steam on a windowpane, or the expansive birds-eye view of the city where the family live. The fantastical moments are a welcome break from the mundane everyday routines of the family. I found the most affecting moment towards the end of the film, when they bring what has until then being a series of seemingly unrelated occurrences together into some semblance of structure. The film may be less enjoyable for older children or adults as the lessons Kun learns all boil down to something fairly similar and obvious, although the film does have some creative scenarios for the fantasy sequences. The film also often feels as though it is a collection of interesting ideas and moments without a cohesive narrative to hold it together.

Mirai does an excellent job of portraying the emotions of its young protagonist. The arrival of his sister leaves Kun feeling neglected and unloved. In order to cope he escapes into his own world in an attempt to understand what he is feeling. It is a journey of discovery for Kun as he attempts to understand that he is part of a larger whole, and to accept that kindness and co-operation are better than selfishness. It also has important lessons for children about never giving up and perhaps how to deal with difficult emotions by distancing yourself from them and attempting to rationalise your feelings as Kun does. The film also touches on the notion of fate and the impact that small acts can have on the future.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017) by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Mary Smith is a young girl living with her mother and grandmother in a remote rural area. She is feeling isolated without any friends her own age, except for Peter, a young boy who delivers letters to her grandmother. One lazy afternoon, Mary follows two cats into the woods where she discovers a mysterious blue flower. She finds herself able to fly on a broomstick and is whisked away to the magical Eldor College, managed by Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. Mary is told that her red hair, which she hates, marks her as a prodigy and adept magic user. At first pleased with her new status, Mary soon discovers that the school harbours a dark secret, with experiments in transforming animals and humans.

Based on the book “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, the film is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi from a screenplay by Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi. The story is a straightforward adventure, with a small cast of main characters, but succeeds in making its characters expressive and memorable, particularly Mary, who is a likeable heroine. She is flawed, often caught in a lie and with a complex about her unruly red hair. These insecurities are balanced with traits such as resourcefulness, inquisitiveness and humour. Doctor Dee and Madame Mumblechook are well designed as fantastical, humorous caricatures. The film was produced by Studio Pontoc, with several animators from Studio Ghibli on their staff it is clear to see the influence both in story and animation. The magical nature of the world allows for creativity in the design of the college and it is interesting to see the English countryside rendered in this style, with the green rolling hills and woodlands captured perfectly. The action beats of the film are exciting and the score is thrilling.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a coming of age story about a young girl who is somewhat lost and alone, dealing with her anxieties, becoming confident and able to take on the world. When we first see Mary she is stifled by boredom, but her inquisitiveness leads her to a fantastical adventure. In the story of Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee we have a simple morality tale about the dangers of lusting after power. There are actually darker undertones regarding the morality of scientific enquiry, with the transmogrification of animals being used as an example of experimentation with questionable motivations. Overall, the film is a fun adventure tale for children, with an enjoyable magical world to get lost in. It does not over-complicate itself, but has a charming central character that young audiences will relate to.

Spirited Away (2001) by Hayao Miyazaki

The film begins with a young girl, Chihiro, moving house with her parents. Just before arriving at their new home, they come across a mysterious forest track, and at the end of the track, a wall with a passageway leading on into the darkness. Chihiro, at first wary, is forced to follow her parents through into what turns out to be an abandoned theme park. Things soon take an dark and unusual turn when her parents, gorging themselves on food lay out on an unattended stall, turn into pigs. What follows is a magical and spectacular adventure, full of dragons, witches, strange creatures and unforgettable characters, such as ‘No-Face’ and various nature spirits.

The film is a great ride from start to finish, following an odd dream logic that keeps your attention as it moves from one unusual character or scenario to the next. In spite of the dreamlike and fantastical nature of this other world, it is made to feel entirely real. The animation is fantastic, with every scene showing incredible attention to detail – from moss and flowers growing in the crevices of stones, to all the many signs on the spirit world streets. The scenes inside the bath-house are a particular delight, with so many characters bustling around, you are sure to want to watch again to make sure you haven’t missed any little expression or moment. The score by Joe Hisaishi is similarly brilliant, capturing the mood of the film perfectly, not an easy task as it drifts from whimsy to melancholy, from action-packed to thoughtful reflection. The story is constantly twisting and turning, and the unexpected nature of this world means that there are constantly new surprises.

At heart a coming-of-age story as Chihiro, who is moving house in her real life, is forced to cope with a strange new world, full of bizarre and often dangerous experiences. Woven through this is a message of environmentalism, with the spirits representing a natural world that is slowly being destroyed, or at least ‘stressed’ by modernity. Without over-emphasising the point it offers a poignant reminder of the importance of protecting our world. A fantastic film with incredible animation and a great message.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) by Hayao Miyazaki

From the opening scenes of a giant walking castle, it is clear that this film is going to be a magical experience. We are introduced to Sophie, a young girl making hats in her mother’s hat-shop. When the Witch of the Waste puts a curse on her, turning her into an old lady, she finds herself swept up into an often unexpected, but always thrilling world of wizards and spells. Sophie sets off to find Howl, whose improbably constructed castle can be seen wandering the landscape, in order to remove the curse, learning about life and love along the way.

The film is full of inventive moments, with the magic element giving the film a truly unexpected quality. Abundant spells mean that anything could happen, and often does. Sophie is a likeable character, with some funny moments and a plight that makes the audience care for her. One of the things the film does well is create a believable world. The artwork and animation is a wonder to behold with all the minute details on the walking castle and street scenes keeping your eyes busy trying to look at everything. The depiction of landscapes, mountains and lakes, do a perfect job in creating a sense of amazement at the natural world, and the action sequences are similarly engaging. The story takes place in a world at war, with a strong anti-war message. The way the film puts across this message is unusual in largely ignoring the war, showing it to be pointless and stupid, and instead focussing on the magic of the countryside and the enjoyment of peace. Instead we see battle-cruisers heading for war, or planes overhead, and the beautiful landscape surrounding offers a counterpoint to this, almost asking the audience to choose between the ugly mechanisation of war, or the rural idyll that the main characters spend most of their time exploring. The times when the war is depicted, it is a dark, dangerous place. The plot can be mysterious at times, but this further adds to the sense of this being a real place with complex characters all of whom have a past, and hopes and dreams. The music is fantastic, with an uplifting score that compliments the gorgeous visuals.

A highly enjoyable film, with creative use of magic and an style that makes every moment a pleasure. As well as a central love story, the film features several themes, including an anti-war message and ideas of aging and maturity. The transformation of Sophie into an old lady, and other transformations further emphasises the themes of growth and change. I would definitely recommend this film as it is packed with so many memorable moments, an engaging plot, likeable characters, and an incredible visual style.