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"Cromartie High The Movie": You've Seen the Anime, Now See It Again

If one conducted an international survey to determine the defining traits of the Japanese people, I suspect very few would propose “funny.” Japanese films distributed abroad are almost invariably of a serious nature, traditionally dramas and recently more and more horror. The only Japanese TV that crosses the oceans is anime, which contains a large amount of “humor” but seldom anything particularly amusing. However, one comedy franchise has proven so popular that both the anime and the live action film have reached American shores. The latter is Cromartie High The Movie, a faithful but flawed adaptation of the series’ hysterical high school hijinks.

Kamiyama and the inmatesThe Cromartie anime is easily one of the funniest I’ve seen. The oblivious straight man cast adrift in a sea of lunatics is a familiar anime formula, but the humor is usually confined to an endless parade of exasperated double takes. Cromartie on the other hand supplies a rich mix of satire and bizarre non sequitors, targeting Japanese society or even anime itself.

The laughs are very dependent on their inspired execution however, and this is where The Movie runs into trouble. The first half of the film plays like a greatest hits collection of gags recycled from the series, only the timing and delivery rarely hit the mark. The whole thing comes off a bit limp and timid compared to the turbocharged nuttiness of the original. The cast seems capable enough, so I’d have to blame the lack of energy on director Yudai Yamaguchi. The bland sitcom cinematography exacerbates the problem, lazily eschewing the anime’s quick cuts. That’s not to say there aren’t any laughs, but anything the movie does well the anime did better.

Perhaps the rhythms of live action are just too different from animation to pull off this brand of humor. It’s difficult to reach the same energy level unless you’ve got a nutcase like Jim Carrey, which is unfortunately a rare breed. Director Yamaguchi would have benefited from closely studying Ace Ventura and The Mask.

Being a huge fan of gag marathons like the Naked Gun films I place little weight on story in comedies, but even so I was a bit taken aback to find The Movie so completely lacking in this department. The majority of the film just skips from one sketch to the next like a Saturday Night Live episode, which eventually grows a little wearisome. In the third act the film gains some focus with a parody of cheesy 60s Japanese sci-fi à la Planet of the Apes, but even this just feels like one more lengthy sketch.

Hey, it says there are no chicks in this flick!Everyone who’s seen the TV series can now go take a coffee break while I describe the film’s “plot.” Well mannered and intelligent in his own way, new student Takashi Kamiyama (Takamasa Suga) hardly fits the average profile at Tokyo’s Cromartie High School, the dumping ground for the city’s most idiotic, violent, and generally outlandish misfits. He makes friends with the semi-normal slackers Hayashida (Mitsuki Koga) and Maeda (Hiroshi Yamamoto), and by virtue of his own obliviousness somehow builds a reputation as a tough guy. He is convinced he can single-handedly turn this dropout haven around, but faces an army of social rejects and reprobates who don’t quite share his vision, including an ersatz Freddie Mercury (Hiroyuki Watanabe), the robot teenager Mekazawa, and a large gorilla.

Hokuto (Noboru Kaneko), heir to a massive corporate empire, transfers in and attempts to take over the school. However, due to mixed signals he instead ends up unintentionally establishing the “Global Defense Force” with Kamiyama and friends, and these Guardian Angel wannabees cluelessly set out to cure society’s ills, including drug abuse and alien invasion.

It's hard out here for a 'botAll the big characters from the series are faithfully replicated, although the tepid material and toned down delivery conspire to keep them from being as interesting as their anime counterparts. Suga plays Kamiyama well but a little too straight and therefore dull, whereas the original’s good intentions carried a hint of insanity. Hokuto, Mekazawa, and ruthless comedy critic Yamaguchi come off the best, but have far too little time in the spotlight. Freddie is far too normal, not to mention Japanese, to foster the cultural incongruity that makes the animated character amusing.

The vicious but motion-sickness-prone Takenouchi gets a long scene in which he collaborates with hijackers in the hope that his flight will never get off the ground. Itsuji Itao, one of my favorite Japanese comedians, is a treat as one of the hijackers, and later as “Masked Takenouchi” when the original inadvertently ends up in South America.

Among the few solid laughs is a long sentimental flashback explaining how Kamiyama was inspired to attend the hellish Cromartie to show solidarity with his dimwitted buddy Yamamoto (Tak Sakaguchi – Versus), abruptly ending with the revelation that Yamamoto immediately flunked out. When the GDF buys up all the drugs they can find to get them off the streets, they find themselves at a loss for what to do with their huge stockpile of narcotics. After considering selling them, they decide it would be more charitable to donate them to needy children, and unsurprisingly end up behind bars for their good deed.

The Orkin Army on the marchThe disc has an unusually healthy offering of extras for a Japanese film. The making of featurette is a promotional piece, with a “reporter” questioning the cast about the film in the style of an exceedingly lame mockumentary. The “Cromartie Special Program” follows with a lengthy collection of extended scenes and gags that may interest fans but isn’t all that entertaining. There’s a photo gallery with a few random cast shots and the Japanese trailer, and then it’s on to the main event: the highly amusing subtitled commentary featuring director Yamaguchi, Suga, Itao, the screenwriter, the producer, and even the Cromartie manga’s publisher. Though they are too busy joking around to talk about the film in detail, there is some interesting background info.

The best recommendation I can give regarding Cromartie High The Movie is to watch the anime instead. Hardcore fans of the show who simply must satisfy their curiosity should stick to the engaging commentary. Not that I know of anywhere else you can see a Freddie Mercury impersonator grooming a gorilla. I mean besides Vegas.

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