After Makoto Nagahisa became the first Japanese director to take home the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance two years ago for And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool – a tale about four girls who release goldfish into a school pool – all eyes were glued to what he would do next.
Such was the anticipation that his debut feature film, We Are Little Zombies, was accepted into 36 film festivals this year although Nagahisa is so busy now he was only able to attend Sundance, Berlinale and Buenos Aries, accepting awards at all three.
We Are Little Zombies is a quirky story about four 13-year-olds united by the recent loss of their parents. The kids, in fact, meet at the crematorium where all their newly deceased parents have gone up in smoke, so to speak.
Now orphans, they form a pop punk band and become overnight superstars, but still, it doesn’t heal their pain – unable to shed tears or even express grief.
Nominated for an AACTA in Australia for Best Asian Film, Nagahisa regrets not being able to attend, but with a newborn at home, family comes first.
When FilmInk meets with him at the 32nd Tokyo International Film Festival, he explains why he auditioned more than a hundred kids before finding his perfect quartet with Keika Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizumo, Mondo Okumura and Sena Nakajima.
“More than anything I wanted charismatic kids. I didn’t want professional child actors because they all emote too much. I wanted their delivery to be very natural,” he says of his psychedelic fantasy inspired by video games and pop culture.
Ten years working at a Tokyo advertising agency – regularly traveling to Tasmania to shoot commercials for local-grown beef for Japanese supermarkets – Nagahisa relishes being able to finally express his personal creativity.
Dressed today in embroidered silk pajamas and sporting two long hair braids, he says he felt repressed going to the office every day in a suit, shaved head and suitcase.
While we can report that both Nagahisa’s parents are happily alive and well, he says the story was inspired by his own lonely childhood. “I grew up in a high mansion, as we call it here, an apartment in a high-rise building. While my own parents didn’t die, they both worked full-time so I was alone a lot.
“So, a lot of the main character Hikari’s dialogue came from my own thoughts at 13,” he says, going on to explain the importance that all four children be just 13, before sexual realisation comes into play.
“The scenes where Hikari is being pushed into the school locker, is because there was a lot of bullying going on at my own school, so that really happened to me.
“Adults always told me I had a dry humour which was probably a self-defense mechanism because my parents were gone so much that sometimes I had to do everything for myself, make my own dinner and put myself to sleep.
“But I never really thought of myself as sad and, even when I was bulled in school, I didn’t really mind it that much. I was never unhappy.”
His choice to have his four young protagonists meet-cute for the first time at a crematorium, he says came from the painful experience of a close friend dying at a young age. “I experienced death from very early on and used all the feelings I had attending their funeral.”
The fact that much of We Are Little Zombies plays out like a video game is a nod to his own video-game obsessed childhood while the movie’s pop punk themes are another nod to a youth spent studying jazz and playing the saxophone.
Never imagining a future where he might become a filmmaker, instead he studied French literature and surrealism at university.
“But there was a cinema nearby, so I watched a lot of movies while I was at university, eventually attending a film school at the same time. I grew up wanting to be a musician before putting all my passion into film.”
Agonising over the title of his latest film in the aftermath of a slew of zombie-themed movies and TV shows, he says, “I was a little bit concerned that people might think it was a horror movie but it was very important to have a story about a zombie who doesn’t have a heart; who doesn’t feel but is still also a human being. I always wanted zombie to be in the title.”
Playing off themes explored in his debut short movie, he admits to having something of an obsession with goldfish. “It’s one of my favourite motifs because fish can’t survive without water. And if humans have them as pets, they need a bowl and water but if they return to natural environments like a stream or the sea, they can become re-energised again. That’s also the state of people. We’re like fish in a bowl, like zombies.”
Naming Michael Haneke as one of his favourite directors, he was particularly inspired by his adaptation of Kafka’s The Castle, using Kafka-esque themes in We Are Little Zombies.
“The children in my film, whose parents have died, are unable to cry or express their emotions. They instead turn into emotional zombies which is like in Kafka’s Metamorphosis,” he says likening his film to a sort of Stand by Me for today’s generation.
“There are many messages to my film, one being that you shouldn’t be judged by others or care about what other people think. Another theme is that time is now and in the present and you should do what you want in that time. There are hundreds more themes because this is like a bible. One sentence can mean different things.”
While he has many original ideas that he seeks to explore in future films, nevertheless, he would be interested in updating Disney classics.
“I would love to totally update Alice in Wonderland and already have a great idea for the soldiers made of playing cards. Also, Cinderella. I would like to work on the two ugly sisters and have them find happiness.”