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Kamogawa Horumo - Battle League in Kyoto
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by Jay Seaver

"We all do weird things in college. Like play Pokemon with little demons."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: You know, if someone had told me right after "Kill Bill" that the girl who played Gogo Yubari would find her niche in comedy, I don't know that I would have believed him. It's true, though - Chiaki Kuriyama is the best part of the underwhelming "GS Wonderland", handled the funny bits of "Hair Extensions" fantastically, and now we see her co-starring in "Kamogawa Horumo: Battle League in Kyoto", a charmingly silly little movie.

She's one of the freshmen who joins her university's Horumo team, the "Azure Dragon" club. Among the others are our narrator, Akira Abe (Takayuki Yamada), who has been assured by outgoing club president Makoto Sugawara (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) that it's just a perfectly normal club. He's drawn in by another prospective member, the beautiful Kyoko Sawara (Sei Ashina). Other new recruits are Koichi Takamura (Gaku Hamada), who grew up in L.A. and is kind of clueless about his ancestral land, and Mitsuru Ashiya (Takuya Ishida), who has never failed at anything. What they soon find out is that Azure Dragon is not just a club that gets together for dinner; it turns out that Kyoto is overrun with little oni demons, invisible to most people, who battle to amuse the local spirits. In order to give the spirits a good show, the members of the four local colleges' Horumo clubs give the onis their marching orders.

And they do this by dancing.

Well, maybe "dancing" is a little kind - it's contorting their bodies into forms which are more or less the opposite of the cool poses struck by martial artists in movies and comics where they can project blasts of energy from their hands. The onis are cute little suckers, too, standing about a foot high, bopping each other with clubs, falling onto their backs with their face puckered in unless they are restored by being fed raisins by the medics that the girls control. The whole thing is exceptionally cute, both because the effects work makes it look like Abe and company are leading armies of little squeak toys and because somewhat tense moments will be interrupted by characters having do something like hop on one foot to get their guys moving in the right direction.

It's a pretty straight-faced form of cuteness, especially by the end, and that's the right note to strike. The onis are adorable, but you don't have Kyoko picking them and squealing "kawai!!!" or anybody breaking character to make the things that have become normal parts of their life seem silly. It also reins in any over-the-top melodrama from the familiar plot that drives the movie: We can all see the deal with the golden boy picking on the new guy, and the nice guy getting all hurt because said golden boy is dating the beauty, even though she's obviously not as cool as the nerdy-looking girl...

Familiar college-movie types, but the cast has fun with them. Takayuki Yamada is playing one of those main characters that means well but can't help but let his own stubbornness and hurt feelings screw things up; he does a good job of making Akira seem young and dumb, but capable of learning, as opposed to just a screw-up. Gaku Hamada spends a good chunk of the movie getting laughs from his haircut, but backs it up by making Takamura a funny combination of timid and excited. Takuya Ishida dives right into making Ashiya into egomania personified, while Sei Ashina's Sawara is one of those girls who doesn't mean to lead guys like Akira on, but also never gives the impression of feeling too bad about it. Chiaki Kuriyama, meanwhile, gets to put on big glasses and a wig that even Louise Brooks would say looks like a helmet, having fun playing Fumi as competitive, kind of nerdy, but always true to herself. Yoshiyoshi Arakawa gets his share of laughs from the part which is about explaining things.

That is, if not quite an all-star cast, at least one filled with familiar faces, and the rest of the movie has production values to match it. The script by Maruo Kyozuka (from a novel by Manabu Makime) is filled with funny moments, and Kyozua and director Katsuhide Motoki do a very nice job of not letting the supernatural danger bury the generally light-hearted college kid stories. The special effects are fairly impressive, especially considering how even American movies costing multiples of this movie's budget can falter when charged with filling the screen with as much as Battle League does during the oni battles, but those are very well-done, often working both plot-moving action and cartoon slapstick at the same time.

Given the notable cast and FX-heavy premise, "Battle League of Kyoto" could have easily had the comedy overwhelmed by everything else, but that doesn't happen here. It stays funny, and pleasantly relatable (for a movie involving swarms of CGI onis) all the way to the end.

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originally posted: 09/11/09 23:25:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2009 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2009 series, click here.

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  DVD: 06-Jul-2010



Directed by
  Katsuhide Motoki

Written by
  Maruo Kyozuka

  Takayuki Yamada
  Chiaki Kuriyama
  Gaku Hamada
  Sei Ashina
  Takuya Ishida

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