The hilarious and outlandish Cromartie High has now gone through three mutations of form: it was originally a manga, then later an animated TV show, and now it has been (one might say it was inevitable) adapted into a live-action movie. It says something about either the strength of the source material or the people doing the adaptation that it has remained consistently funny and fresh in all three of its incarnations. The live-action movie version of this sort of material is the one iteration that usually falls flat on its face, and so I went into Cromartie High: The Movie with limited expectations. But it works, and I guess it’s a sign of success on the part of the movie to say that at more than one point I laughed hard enough to gag on my own uvula.
How exactly do you convert material like this into a movie, anyway? The original comic worked as a series of four- and eight-page shorts—they set up a situation, rang a couple of changes on them, and then ended with a punchline that was like a door being slammed. The TV series mimicked that feel by using a short 15-minute-per-episode format—also just long enough to set up a situation and get laughs out of it without beating it to death. For that reason they got away with jokes that would have turned stale in a 30-minute show, and I was grateful. But a feature-length movie, even a relatively short one (Cromartie only runs about 90 minutes, tops) is a different proposition, and so they’ve tread a fine line between being quick and being skimpy.
The basic story hasn’t changed a bit. We have Kamiyama (Takamasa Suga), an upright and square-jawed young student who has transferred into the worst school in Japan, Cromartie High, and realizes immediately he’s arrived not just in a dangerous place but a thoroughly alien one. His fellow students are either witless punks of one stripe or another, or are completely off the map—like a Freddy Mercury lookalike named, appropriately enough, Freddie (Hiroyuki Watanabe), or Mechazawa, a robot (Shinji Takeda), or Hokuto (Noboru Kaneko), born into wealth and privilege but who still has essential parts on order and doesn’t even know how to correctly intimidate his peers. My favorite character remains Takenouchi, the bullet-headed bruiser with chronic motion sickness who will do absolutely anything to avoid going on school trips.
The manga and anime used the quirks of each of these characters to drive what little plot there was, and the same thing has been done here, although only up to a point. Most of the story is taken up by the more random and bizarre elements that turned up in the original works: the gorilla(s), who are in theory classmates. Or the inexplicably popular TV show “Pootan”, which consists of two dour-faced salarymen sitting around in fuzzy suits and making deadpan statements that end in the syllable “pooh.” (Somehow it’s all the funnier to me that one of the Pootans is the perpetually serious-looking veteran actor Kenichi Endo, whom Takashi Miike fans will immediately recognize.) Or the ape-faced alien(s) who take over the school with “Make-U-Tuff” giveaway kits that are actually mind control devices. And so on.
Cromartie is about as charmingly goofy as it is shapeless—there’s no real plot to speak of, just one set of incidents loosely hitched to another, and a climax that is, well, outlandish. But that was the way the original was constructed, so the movie is only being that much truer to its origins, and some of the payoffs are more than worth waiting for. At one point Kamiyama tries to convince the rest of the class to stop smoking, and puts on a show-and-tell about the evils of cigarettes—but that’s just the setup, and the payoff (which is practically two whole scenes later) is a howl. Even funnier is a sequence where they persuade Hokuto into doing something good with his family’s wealth—like, say, buying up all the illegal drugs for sale throughout Tokyo, which fill a warehouse that looks like the one in last shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, again, that’s not even the real punchline.
The director was Yudai Yamaguchi, he who gave us Battlefield Basebell back in 2003 and cowrote Ryuhei Kitamura’s amazing Alive and Versus. I wasn’t terribly fond of Baseball—I thought it was more setup than payoff—but I noted that Yamaguchi had already been signed to direct Cromartie by then, and figured if anyone could do justice to a story that unsprung, it was him. I was right, and now I find myself looking forward to his forthcoming adaptation of a Kazuo Umezu horror manga, as well as a horror-comedy-love-story-something-or-other that goes by the best title I’ve heard in a long time: Meatball Machine.