Photo/IllutrationDirector Makoto Nagahisa receives the Special Mention award in the Youth Jury Generation 14plus category at the Berlin International Film Festival. He says his braids are his “formal attire.” (Kenji Komine)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

When Makoto Nagahisa began working for advertising giant Dentsu Inc., his career prospects were far from bright.

The 34-year-old creative director said he was considered dead weight and was just in charge of minor projects, with the only thing seen as unique about him being his braided hair.

But that gave him all the more reason to want to make stories to encourage outcasts, he said.

Now Nagahisa has triumphantly returned to Japan with his first feature film, “We Are Little Zombies,” after it won awards at festivals in the United States, Germany and elsewhere. It was released nationwide on June 14.

The film won the Special Mention award in the Youth Jury Generation 14plus at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

“I made this movie to save teenagers, and I’m so happy,” the director said.

The story is about a group of 13-year-olds--three boys and a girl--all who have become emotionally numb from dealing with the deaths of their parents.

The teens, who are treated with contempt, and even referred to as “zombies,” form a band and begin to feel alive again.

Critics lauded Nagahisa’s visual style, apparently influenced by video games, the film's use of pop music and kitsch costumes and other factors. The film also nabbed the World Cinema Dramatic Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival, a U.S. filmfest considered a sure route to success for young filmmakers worldwide.

Although he remains a Dentsu employee, Nagahisa was mainly assigned unglamorous projects after he joined the advertising powerhouse in 2007. Instead of producing more creative TV commercials, he made video clips to sell beef at supermarkets and TV programs to promote local mascots. Proceeds from such productions were paltry for Dentsu.

“But I wanted to make things to satisfy clients, so I was busy and it was physically demanding,” Nagahisa said.

The stress caught up with him three years ago, and his health fell apart. He temporarily lost his hearing and couldn’t go out because of chest pain.

Determined to do something he wanted to do before it was too late, Nagahisa decided to make the movie he had dreamed of when he was a student. He took a paid leave of absence and shot his first movie, “And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool,” in 10 days in 2016. The title won the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

Taking advantage of the recognition that came with the award, Nagahisa negotiated with Dentsu to let him work exclusively as a film director so he could make his second film.

He developed ideas for the project during a paternity leave he took when his second daughter was born. Nagahisa asked his wife to give him 30 minutes alone each day, during which time he rushed to the nearest convenience store to write the script in its cafe area.

He wears his hair in two long braids to attract attention and serve as a human advertisement for his movies. The reason for his eccentric hairstyle is because he loves minor characters in video games.

“As far as fighting games are concerned, I’m interested in characters tailored to walk on the wild side,” Nagahisa said. “I wear my hair like this to understand their feelings.”

The youngsters in his latest film also are unable to live mainstream lives.

“There's a tendency in modern society to just demand what’s right, saying ‘be positive, be serious,’” Nagahisa added. “But I hope the movie sends the message that it's OK to run away, be a social recluse or go off the rails at times when it becomes too much for you.”