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.

Yarukya Knight (2015) by Katsutoshi Hirabayashi

Makoto Gosuke (Tomoya Nakamura) moves to a school ruled by the female students. The girls, fed up with their strict and perverse teacher, Arashi (Alexander Otsuka), have kicked him out and taken over the school. Misaki Shizuka (Nina Endo) is the leader of this new female-led revolutionary governing order. The male students meanwhile are kept in check, repeatedly punished for their sexual desires, stripped and tied up for their apparent impertinence. Gosuke falls in love with Misaki and urges the other boys to take a stand and take back the school. When cruel teacher Arashi returns, Makoto and Misaki must put their differences aside to fight together against their common enemy.

“Yarukya Knight” is based on a manga of the same name by Nonki Miyasu. Director Katsutoshi Hirabayashi uses an active camera and off-kilter angles to create an exciting visual style. Special effects are used sparingly but to great effect to further emphasise that the film should be seen as a live-action cartoon. In particular a scene of our protagonist being thrown so forcefully into a wall that he becomes lodged there. All members of the cast do a fantastic job with their characters and have great comedy timing and performances. Particularly Tomoya Nakamura, Nina Endo and Erisa Yanagi.

A simple teen comedy that treads familiar ground of male sexual desire and female attempts to avoid it. The dynamic between the groups works well as a catalyst for much of the humour. The jokes usually land well and the premise is amusing. The sexual politics that the film portrays are simplistic and rely on stereotypical views of teen life, but this plays to the film’s strength. It creates a host of likeable characters in a tongue-in-cheek teen comedy.

Beach Volleyball Detectives Parts 1 and 2 (2007) by Yumi Yoshiyuki

While playing volleyball, a group of three female officers see a man spying on them. After running him down they find a memory stick containing information about a nuclear bomb threat. The group are joined by a CIA operative who arrives and the four of them must go undercover. They sign-up for an international volleyball tournament alongside Chinese, Indian and Russian teams. The Chinese competitors, under the auspices of the mysterious “Black Sun”, are planning to destroy the world and it is up to the Japanese to stop them.

“Beach Volleyball Detectives” is a film that has a concept that could absolutely have worked in the right hands. The farcical plot and blend of low-brow titillation and slapstick humour do provide a few good moments, but on the whole they are undermined by the poor production quality. The locations in Chiba are hardly fitting for the sexy tone the film is trying to establish and the sets are usually no more than empty rooms dressed with a few posters and props. In a film such as this a silly and unbelievable plot and wooden acting is hardly a significant drawback, but the film never reaches that critical mass of humour or outrageousness, often being bland and uncreative. The actresses are there to look good and little else. There are jokes about Chinese, Russian and Indian stereotypes that again suffer from poor execution. It feels as though little effort was put into anything beyond the basic premise, which makes it remarkable they managed to convince even this small cast to star in it. Film’s like the live-action “Cutie Honey” and “Oppai Volleyball” show that the problem is not necessarily with the fundamentals, but with the execution. Likewise, “Ping Pong” and “Prince of Tennis” are examples of over-the-top sports comedies that are engaging. The problem here is that not enough effort went into the production. An egregious example of this is in the use of CGI volleyballs. There is absolutely no reason why the actresses could not have strung together a couple of plays, and in the close-up one shots it is completely unnecessary to use special effects. I loved the concept of players each having a video game-esque special move, but again this was undermined by poor quality graphics. They could have done more of the visual gags with practical effects with just a little more creative thought.

Overall, “Beach Volleyball Detectives” is probably one best avoided. It is lacking in quality humour, script, dialogue, acting and special effects. It is almost incredible that a film about women playing beach volleyball can be so uninteresting.

Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats (2014) by Yosuke Fujita

Tatsuo Fukada (Miyuki Oshima) lives out his life, content with his lot, working at a construction company and drinking with his friend and co-worker. He also spends time with his two oddball flatmates, one of whom recently completed a pilgrimage of Buddhist shrines to atone for his sin of stealing panties, the other who is living with a giant snake in his apartment. Despite his friends’ insistence that he find a girlfriend, and attempts to matchmake for him, Tatsuo remains steadfastly single, happy with his hobby of decorating and flying kites. In a parallel story we follow Chiho Sugiura (Asami Mizukawa), a young woman who quits her job in order to follow her dreams of becoming a photographer. When she unexpectedly comes face to face with Tatsuo she is reminded that they were at school together. Tatsuo was mercilessly bullied for his appearance and Chiho begs his forgiveness for her part in the teasing. She is enamoured by his features and wishes to use him as the subject in her art, finally finding her muse in Tatsuo.

Written and directed by Yosuke Fujita, “Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats” is a peculiar film in many regards. The pacing is very slow for the first hour until the film finally gets to the connection between Fukada and Sugiura. There are also tonal discrepancies in many sequences. For example, the sexual harassment of Chiho by a respected photographer, and hints towards his violence towards women seems at odds with the comedy stylings of other moments. The other element that is hard to reconcile with the general feel-good drama vibe is the character of Akira Nonoshita (Asato Iida), who swings wildly from a geeky caricature into something far more terrifying. The film is not without its moments though. The writing throws up some genuinely funny dialogue between the flatmates and it is clear to see the intention of the wackier elements. Miyuki Oshima uses her talents as a physical comedian to great effect, and her expressive features find themselves equally suited to more serious drama. Asami Mizukawa does a good job, but her part, as with many other characters seems underwritten.

“Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats” is ostensibly a comedy, but finds itself lacking enough jokes to keep things interesting. The talented cast do their best with the material. The film is at its strongest when it reaches its revelatory moment about Fukada and Chiho, but it does so little to really set up the characters even this moments lacks the impact it should have. The film’s central theme is that of forgiveness and moving on with life, but the message is confused by its bizarre tone. Themes of sexual perversion and violence seem completely out of place and the relevance to the story of Fukada, the film’s protagonist, is tenuous. Despite the fantastic central performance of Oshima, this film sadly falls short as both a drama and a comedy.

Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005)

A collection of surreal shorts, including dance routines, animated segments, nonsensical comedy skits, aliens, canine film directors and more. Throughout a two-hour run time the audience is assaulted with an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness, merry-go-round of drama, slapstick, puerile jokes involving bodily functions, dadaist segments in which you begin to wonder whether this is intended to entertain or frustrate you, and parts which defy explanation entirely. The film will occasionally tease you with a recurring character, a common theme or concept mentioned in different scenes, but on the whole it is fascinatingly, even hypnotically, anarchic.

The film was written and directed by Katsuhiro Ishii, Hajimine Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, who obviously delight in completely bamboozling their audience. Although the film might be accurately described as unconventional, there is undeniable talent on show here. Each segment does have at least a few clever ideas, and they know how to provoke a response when necessary. With each segment being short, there is also the chance that if you are not enjoying one, there will be something else that you will like. The film features a large cast, including some well known actors such as Rinko Kikuchi and Tadanobu Asano, as well as Evangelion director Hideaki Anno (some of whom appear in multiple roles).

The film should be enjoyed as a collection of short sketches, more akin to a variety show, than a traditional beginning-to-end story. Ridiculous as much of it is, I felt that it was far from meaningless. It does what great art should and provokes you, it provokes you to wonder what is happening, perhaps even offering you a perspective on life that you may not have considered. It is certainly one of the weirdest films you will ever watch, and I would recommend that you give it a try, especially if you are a fan of surrealist comedy. It is an experience that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.