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Assassination Classroom
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by Jay Seaver

"Pretty funny when it stays as weird as its premise."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Next time I'm in the comic shop, I'm going to have to give the "Assassination Classroom" manga a look to see what the average chapter length is; even if it's something like 16 pages, I'll bet they're decompressed and some of the best bits are probably four-panel half-pagers. At least, that's what one might expect based upon the movie, which jumps between short episodes and gags so quickly that it feels scattered and never really coalesces as a story that makes sense.

The story it has involves Kunugigaoka Junior High School class 3-E - openly described as the dregs of the school (and roughly equivalent to Grade 9 in North America) - being moved to a separate, run-down building,where they are given a highly unusual home room teacher: A yellow alien (voice of Kanna Hashimoto) with beady little eyes, a gigantic grin, tentacles, and the ability to fly, regenerate, and move at roughly Mach 20. He has already destroyed half the moon and threatened to do the same to the Earth, but to be sporting, he's offered to teach a class of kids how to kill him and give them until the end of the academic year to do it. Somehow outfitted with powerful guns and explosives that will not do lasting harm to human beings, the students - including underachiever Nagisa Shiota (Ryosuke Yamada), and the quite intelligent but combative transfer student Karma Akabane (Masaki Suda), along with oddities like STAR the "Self-Thinking Artillery Robot" - begin each day with a gunfight in hope of scoring a ten billion yen reward. Their teachers include Ministry of Defense representative Tadaomi Karasuma (Kippei Shiina) and Irina Jelavic (Kang Ji-young), who has gone from KGB assassin to high-school English teacher.

That's just a handful of the characters in the movie - it's a classroom of about 25 or 30 students who are all name-checked and given something to do over the course of the film. Whether out of necessity or because it's following the source material, the movie winds up being very episodic, with ten minute bits that sometimes revolve around plans to out take "UT" (for "unkillable teacher") and sometimes make a conventional situation strange by dropping the likes of a smiling tentacle monster and a massive killer robot with the personality of a cheerful schoolgirl into them. The good news is, those bits are funny; between the original manga by Yusei Matsui, the script by Tatsuya Kanazawa, and the direction of Eiichiro Hasumi, they're not just absurd but fast-paced, getting to the punchline well before the gag is beaten into the ground. There's generally at least one good-sized laugh in every set-up, which isn't bad at all.

Credit goes to the cast, real and virtual, for selling it. "UT" looks to be full-CGI most of the time, and while he's not state-of-the-art by Hollywood standards, he seldom seems to be "not there", and Hasumi and the crew seem to make use of his unreality so that we're constantly reminded that he is genuinely alien, enough so to be insane by human standards. Kazunari Ninomiya adds to that impression with her delightfully wacky voice work; UT doesn't sound like anybody else in the movie in terms of register, cadence, or accent.

The human cast is pretty nice, although there are so many of them that only a few really get to stand out. Ryosuke Yamada plays Nagisa - the self-effacing type of guy who is fairly common in Japanese young-adult fare, built to be a viewpoint character and therefore not made to stick out in any way that would cause otaku readers/viewers not to identify with him - but Yamada's an amiable enough guy in the role and doesn't overdo it. Masaki Suda has the best part, a white knight wannabe whose brains, toughness, and opinions of his own nobility haven't prepared him for how he'll get thrown around in this situation. He gets the best of the slapstick (non-actual-cartoon division) and is a pro at reacting to it. Most of the other students have a chance to do something funny or other, but few get to really stand out. Kang Ji-young dives into her femme fatale role, but there's not much to do.

The main gag, of course, is that a lot of these kids maybe wouldn't be in the reject class if they had a teacher as good as UT to begin with, as he makes sure they are well-schooled academically and builds their confidence along with the combat courses. Not bad for a one-off or a regular series, but for this movie it means introducing this other subplot that requires a team-up at around the three-quarter mark but has to reset back to normal for next year's Assassination Classroom: The Graduation and it's pretty disruptive. There are also a few bits that really don't fit - much darker hints about UT's past, a subplot about childhood friend of Nagisa's who isn't part of the reject class - that also throw the tone of the film off.

Maybe it's supposed to be like that; the two-part manga adaptation has been a regular thing in Japan since it was done for "Death Note" eight years ago and seeing both "Assassination Classroom" movies together will tie everything together. This one is funny but also feels wrong in some places on its own; hopefully the sequel will fit it all together.

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originally posted: 08/14/15 12:47:04
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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