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Cromartie High School
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by Jay Seaver

"The franchise just rolls through different media."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2005 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: "Cromartie High School" is a hot property right now, at least in some circles. The three collections of manga that are out in the US sell pretty well, as do the anime DVDs. I'm not sure whether it's a franchise with longstanding popularity or a fad in Japan, but whichever it is, it's made the leap to a live-action feature film, and done so in a fairly entertaining manner.

It's a tricky leap, because while many manga are long, ongoing serials, Cromartie is a series of short vignettes which screenwriters Itsuji Itao and Shoichiro Masumoto have to somehow connect, expand, and embellish to form into an eighty-five minute movie. The basic gist is that Takashi Kamiyama (Takamusa Suga), a fairly bright 16-year-old, winds up in Tokyo's worst high school in order to help his best friend - who fails the entrance exam anyway. Being a resolute - and thoroughly naive - fellow, Kamiyama makes it his goal to clean up Cromartie, help the students make something of themselves. This will not be easy, since the students include Takenouchi (Yoshihiro Takayama), the tough guy with severe motion sickness, an obnoxious robot named Shinichi Mechazawa (voice of Shinji Takeda), and a gorilla. This is before Takeshi Hokuto (Noboru Kaneko) and his lackey show up, planning to "conquer" the school like the 18 private ones Hokuto's father has bought, or the ape-men from another planet arrive.

As you can see, we're in "anything goes" territory, with much of the humor deriving from the absurdity of the situation and how thoroughly stupid everyone, including (and sometimes especially) Kamiyama can be. Not all the jokes work, but even the ones that fail generally fail in an amusing way: There's a segment in the middle where Kamiyama tries to convince the school's delinquents to give up smoking cigarettes that offers up a steady stream of chuckles while building up to... a pratfall. Not even a creative pratfall, but the hoariest, most cliché'd bit of slapstick in the book. Sure, I laughed, but it wasn't quite the laugh that the climax of a sequence that long should have gotten. The filmmakers are well aware of how the audience will often laugh because something is weird, as opposed to funny - sometimes dangerously so; a bizarre television program the students watch even comments on it.

For the most part, though, the sketch-movie structure works: Five minutes isn't enough time to grow tired of a particular bit, and although the characters are zany, their delivery is deadpan, so if a joke doesn't work for you, it probably isn't actively annoying. Running jokes build nicely without being beat into the ground, and as we get to know the characters better, the segments start to get a bit longer, until by the end something resembling an actual plot has developed, which involves most of the cast and even gives some of them a sort of character arc, although the movie is self-referential enough to make it something of a parody of a conventional character arc, too.

The look of the film is low-budget Matrix chic - the school uniform is collar-less black jackets and pants, which contrasts with the goofy grey outfits Kamiyama eventually makes for Hokuto's improvised crimefighting society. Rather than looking Sonnenfeld-slick, though, the black-outfit aesthetic is married to thoroughly B-movie production values in other areas - Mechazawa, Gorilla, and the aliens look delightfully fake, and the color of the film (or digital video) is desaturated enough that those blacks don't really pop. That's kind of fitting, of course - it this is supposed to be the school for the losers and delinquents, it shouldn't look too cool.

That's part of why a movie about the kids you'd probably look to avoid in a real high school can be fun - they smoke (though I'm not sure how much teens smoking is frowned upon in Japan compared to the US), cut classes, and don't do much learning, but for all their talk, they don't seem to be making much trouble or getting into many fights. Director Yudai Yamaguchi - who collaborated with Ryuhei Kitamura earlier in their careers and also made Battlefield Baseball - presents us with guys who talk a big game, but are ultimately colorful slackers.

"Cromartie High School" is fun and should please its audience whenever it hits the US video shelves (although a canny marketer like MTV/Paramount could probably get it a profitable theatrical run). Heck, even if you just know of the franchise or like absurd humor, it's probably worth a look.

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originally posted: 08/06/05 06:23:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2005 Fantasia Festival series, click here.

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