Well, this one was far bleaker, quieter and moody than I’d expected from the lighthearted-seeming title (perhaps I should have looked at the poster).
Although I do think it’s all the better for it and, combined with the black-and-white photography and the almost-complete lack of music and dialogue, makes for an oddly unique viewing experience.
Miss Zombie, directed by Sabu, concerns a young zombie woman (Ayaka Komatsu) who takes up employment from a doctor (Toru Tezuka) and his upper-middle-class family, but even the manner of this is bizarre: She’s just casually delivered in a cage-like crate to their home with instructions on what to feed and her and what not to feed her (fruits/vegetables and meat, respectively), along with a gun if things get out of hand. We’re in a post-zombie-apocalypse setting, in which things have quieted down and society seems to have figured out what to do with the undead. Zombies are just old-hat, though still considered a mild threat, on par with society’s view of rabid animals or violent ex-cons.
The zombie is put to work outside scrubbing the patio – naturally, very slowly – and is sent away at the end of the day with a bag of rotting fruits and vegetables (the husband dissuades the wife from giving fresh food, but she adds a flower). She goes home to her tiny house and eats in silence, but not before she is attacked by children and other townspeople. This continues each night, with her keeping the flowers along with the weapons with which she’s attacked, and quietly moving on to the next day of cleaning. But, for want of a better term, it’s not a happy arrangement, and things quickly start to become problematic…
I see the strong allegory for domesticated workers and how poorly they’re treated (globally), and I didn’t mind that it was so in-your-face because that’s the only overt thing about this film, and it has plenty to say on this subject, including how the dynamics with different family members typically evolve. I should mention that there are multiple scenes of sexual assault (including two rapes), but the film doesn’t justify this and only presents it with horror. From this there comes some awfully bleak commentary on the hypocrisy of those who condemn sexual violence but then participate in it themselves, insisting that their victims provided consent.
Indeed, the zombie has no agency – she’s mentally, clinically and physically trapped in her situation – but private moments at her house where we see her ability to have flashbacks of her previous life show that she’s still a living, sentient being who’s owed the respect she deserves. And we almost never see her get any of that.
The film makes haunting use of its bleak black-and-white photography, though even mocking it playfully at times (a character holds up an item of clothing and deems it ‘too colourful’), and its moments of pure silence are eerily undercut by the repeated refrain of the zombie’s cleaning brush slowly dragging outside, which practically become its own character. The house and grounds setting, too, is similarly, aptly presented: an arid patio, sad-looking mismatched furniture placed in rooms to maximise negative space, and a dizzying maze of curved half-staircases with no banisters. A quiet house of horrors.
In terms of performances, Komatsu does well selling us the zombie’s humanity despite the role’s zombie-enforced limitations, and Tezuka puts in a measured performance as the conflicted (but ultimately selfish) doctor. But it’s Makoto Togashi who carries the emotional weight – and propels its arc – of the film, deftly going from polite and welcoming to wary, jealous and utterly broken by the film’s midpoint. As so many of the others, because they’re so broadly drawn, there’s a risk of her coming across as yet another evil upper-mid-class stereotype, but Togashi imbues her character with such anxiety and fury that it’s hard not to root for her on some level, too.
For a film full of mostly unlikable characters and a central character who moves at a glacial place (and, therefore, so does the film itself), this is indeed the slowest of slow-burns, and the burn itself may not be what one traditionally hopes for. But this is something different from the zombie subgenre, with a distinctly Japanese flair. Watch for the style, but stay also for the social commentary and the relatable, sadly-always-topical human story.