Judge Dan Mancini once thought there was a gorilla in his high school gym class, but it was just a dude with a really hairy back.
Dear Viewers Sitting in Front of the Television: the guys that appear in this anime are delinquents. So, please do not, under any circumstances, imitate what you see in this anime.
Hiroaki Sakurai's wildly popular anime adaptation of Eiji Nonaka's absurdist manga is here.
Facts of the Case
Cromartie High School is the fish-out-of-water story of Takashi Kamiyama. A promising student, our hero ends up at Cromartie—the bottom of the public high school barrel—because it is the only school whose entrance exam his best friend Ichiro Yamamoto has any chance of passing. Unfortunately, Yamamoto fails, leaving Kamiyama on his own to navigate the dangerous and bizarre wonders of Cromartie.
The school's student body is comprised of dregs and roughnecks like the mohawked Shinjiro Hayashida and his pal Akira Maeda. The boss of the First Year class is the hulking Yutaka Takenouchi, able to the thrash any of the other boys in a fight but prone to motion sickness. Along for the weird ride are a robot named Shinichi Mechazawa, who seems to believe he's a normal boy; a mysterious, shirtless Westerner who may or may not be a student, and who bears a striking resemblance to Queen lead singer, Freddie Mercury; and a massive gorilla who, though he probably doesn't belong at Cromartie, has proven he's smarter than Kamiyama and his buddies.
• Episode 1:
New to Cromartie High School, Kamiyama is confronted with a variety of delinquents, including a vicious pencil-eater. The school's toughs engage in a bragging contest in which Maeda loses face because, though he claims to have won every fight he's been in, he's never had a cool nickname. Meanwhile, Kamiyama—who suffered with the junior high nickname "Errand Boy"—reads Debuting in High School, a guidebook for transforming himself into a badass.
• Episode 2:
Hayashida calls Kamiyama's attention to Year One Class Five. There he witnesses Shinichi Mechazawa, a robot student unaware he isn't human. As they spy on the class, Kamiyama and Hayashida hope the other students will tell Mechazawa who and what he really is, but the robot's leadership during a conflict with some Destrade High School thugs makes it difficult for them to do so.
• Episode 3:
When Hayashida overhears Mechazawa humming a song, it gets stuck in his head. He's unable to identify it, though, and goes to Kamiyama and Maeda for help. They're unable to assist him, and fall victim to the catchy tune. As they hum it to a growing number of their classmates, seeking an answer to the mystery, the infectious melody spreads. Soon, the entire Cromartie student body has fallen victim to the mystery melody.
• Episode 4:
September. The Year One students at Destrade Technical High School—led by the bushy-haired Noboru Yamaguchi (aka "Silent Unsinkable Battleship")—scheme to crush Cromartie by targeting its boss, Yutaka Takenouchi. Though stern on the outside, Yamaguchi has a peculiar sense of humor and twilights anonymously as a "postcard artisan," sending jokes to late-night radio shows. His great rival, it turns out, is Takashi "Honey Boy" Kamiyama, the one postcard artisan whose jokes are superior to his own.
• Episode 5:
On a bus ride on the Iroha Hill Road during a Cromartie field trip, the great Takenouchi battles his single weakness—motion sickness. Kamiyama unwittingly defeats him with a snack pack of pudding. Later, Maeda is kidnapped by the thugs of Bass High and Kamiyama, Hayashida, and Takenouchi resolve to rescue him. Takenouchi regrets the decision when a taxi ride to the rival school turns into an endless journey.
• Episode 6:
Enter: Takeshi Hokuto, 16-year-old heir to the Hokuto Foundation. His father chairs the board of directors of several private high schools, and Hokuto comes, with his nameless henchman, to take over as Cromartie's boss. Unfortunately, Cromartie is a public school and not under the control of his dad. Fearing his mistake will disgrace him, he spins a tale to Kamiyama, Hayashida, and Freddie that his old man is the evil Shadow Premier controlling the Japanese government, and he needs their help to defeat him.
• Episode 7:
Pootan, a TV show with men dressed up in plush, pink and white animal costumes, deeply offends Yamaguchi's comic sensibilities. He decides to become a professional comedian in order to fight back against the rash of asinine shows on television. In order to ensure success, he must convince "Honey Boy" Kamiyama to become his partner. He's horrified to learn, however, that Kamiyama loves Pootan. Convinced of Kamiyama's genius, Yamaguchi gives the show another try. But no matter how hard he concentrates, he's unable to grasp the source of its appeal.
• Episode 8:
It's physical exam time at Cromartie, and the school doctor freaks out when confronted with Mechazawa, Freddie, and Gorilla. He refers Mechazawa to an appliance repair shop, where his memory is accidentally erased. Meanwhile, Maeda is offended when Kamiyama and Hayashida—not knowing Freddie's birth date—decide to celebrate it on the same day as Maeda's.
Eiji Nonaka's Cromartie High School manga is divided into brief, punchy chapters that read like a series of bizarre one-liners. Hiroaki Sakurai's anime adaptation retains this quality. The show's episodes run approximately 12 minutes in length, two minutes of which is comprised of the opening and closing credits. Despite the similarity of form, the anime plays like a Cliff's Notes version of the manga, replicating certain episodes exactly but eliding much of the context. Sakurai's series relies, to a certain extent, on its audience being familiar with the manga. The show never explains, for example, how Kamiyama became a student at Cromartie, though he clearly doesn't belong there. The manga also introduces Freddie, Gorilla, and Mechazawa in parallel episodes that draw their humor from the repetition of structure and action, and an escalation of elements of the absurd. Their appearances are a signal that Nonaka's book is an anarchic, culturally-aware, self-reflexive, postmodern free-for-all focused on deconstructing any and all manga conventions. In the anime, only Mechazawa is given a full introduction, Freddie and Gorilla simply appear. It's assumed we know them.
Because the show is a no-holds-barred lampoon of Japanese popular culture, a lot of the humor will be lost on Westerners. Cromartie and its main rivals, Bass and Destrade high schools, for instance, are named after Japanese baseball players. And the show is jam-packed with sly references to Japanese television, film, and music personalities. One of the extras on the disc is a collection of text-based Cultural Notes that explain some of the esoterica, but jokes that need to be explained aren't all that funny. It's to Cromartie High School's credit, then, that it manages to be hilarious despite the cultural obscurity of some of its humor. Though much of it is bound to fly over the heads of a Western audience, the shtick is so dense that plenty of it will catch you right between the eyes. Anime fans, in particular, will appreciate much of what they see. The show is jam-packed with parody of anime in nearly all of its genres. The opening scene of Episode One, for instance, has Kamiyama dropping his pencil—a mundane action embellished with exaggerated motion lines and an expression of shock on our hero's face so extreme it looks like he's witnessing a tentacled monster descending from the heavens.
The show's animation isn't all that animated, but the absence of movement is cleverly employed to capture the look of the manga, and its character design and style is meticulously reproduced. Nonaka's book is loaded with hand-scribbled metadata: arrows pointing to background action, and annotations emphasizing the characters and plotting as foolishly-constructed artifice. Sakurai reproduces this in the anime by having characters slide cockeyed into the background to deliver punchlines, overlaying the animation with text that describes characters and places, and randomly blurring innocuous images like the tips of pencils as a parody of the censoring of racier anime. The show also perfectly reproduces Nonaka's penchant for quick panel reveals of visual punchlines as when Mechazawa is introduced behind a sliding shoji screen.
The animation may look intentionally cheap, but ADV has done a fine job transferring it to DVD. Colors are solid and perfectly rendered, and detail is sharp. It's a good-looking picture. Audio is similarly fine, with a stereo mix of the original Japanese dialogue (subtitled in English), and a full-blown Dolby Digital 5.1 English dub. The English track is much more dynamic, of course, but the Japanese track offers superior performances. Cromartie is so specifically Japanese, it's odd hearing English dialogue coming from the characters' mouths, so the stereo mix is preferable.
The DVD is packaged in a keep case whose cover art mimics a worn LP of Queen II. The stylish animated menus follow that theme with a faded image of an old turntable spinning a record while music from the show plays in the background.
Supplements are limited but of decent quality. In addition to the fairly extensive Cultural Notes mentioned earlier, the title and credit sequence animation are offered sans text. A number of warnings about the show's content (presumably used as post-commercial bumpers), and a preview of Cromartie High School: Hey Dude (Volume 2) are also housed on the DVD. In addition, a brief but entertaining production booklet contains biographical information on a couple of the show's characters, brief interviews with Hiroaki Sakurai and actor Takahiro Sakurai, who voices Kamiyama, and a few other silly goodies.
Cromartie High School is peculiar, to be sure, but it's also the funniest anime I've ever seen. It's not going to be to everyone's tastes, but if you're a fan of manga and anime, it's worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
• Cultural Notes and Comments
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