Sunday, August 14, 2005



Explore delinquents’
world in ‘Cromartie’

A few months ago in this space, I explored the world of "Azumanga Daioh," a quirky, lighthearted comedy about a group of cute girls going through high school together.

"Cromartie High School"

On DVD: Vols. 1-3 available now from ADV Films (vol. 1 has eight 15-minute episodes, while vols. 2 and 3 have six episodes each); vol. 4 available Tuesday

In print: Vols. 1 and 2 available now from ADV Manga; vol. 3 scheduled for release this month

But let's face it: Not everyone's into the whole cute-girl vibe. Some people out there might want something grittier to watch. Something that speaks to more primal, macho tastes, about guys who are just as likely to throw out punches as puns.

So in the interest of gender equity, it's time to take a trip to "Cromartie High School," a quirky, lighthearted comedy about a group of teenage delinquents trying to go through high school together.

Eiji Nonaka's tale of dimwitted thugs first saw life as a manga in 2001 before being adapted into a 26-episode anime series in 2003. ADV has the rights to release both stateside and has been doing so since March.

The first joke of "Cromartie High School" lies in the names of the high schools -- the core Cromartie, as well as rival schools Bass, Destrade and Manuel, are all names of American pro baseball players who went on to star in Japanese leagues. Warren Cromartie, it should be noted, wasn't too thrilled when he learned of the connection; he actually filed a request in a Japanese court to delay the release of a live-action "Cromartie" film pending further legal action. (The dispute was later settled out of court.)

At the moral and intellectual center of this series about delinquents is the decidedly nondelinquent and morally upstanding Takashi Kamiyama. Other members of his class brag about taking on five people at once or beating up opponents to a bloody pulp; his worst offense was rigging a domino so it wouldn't fall during a world-record domino-building attempt.

High school life starts off rough for Kamiyama -- when he accidentally drops a pencil in class, one of his classmates promptly picks it up, breaks it and eats it. Heck, when he tries an experiment and empties out all of his pencils on the ground, the guy picks them all up and crams them into his mouth as well.

Through a series of random circumstances, though, Kamiyama manages to blend in with the rest of the class. It's rather easy to do, really, considering his classmates include:

» Shinjiro Hayashida, one of Kamiyama's first friends, who has a lavender-colored mohawk that waves in the wind, even if there is no wind.

» Yutaka Takenouchi, the recognized gang leader of the first-year students, who has a secret fear that he'll be dethroned once people discover that he gets carsick easily.

» Mechazawa, a classmate who walks, talks, acts, looks like and probably is a robot, except no one but Kamiyama and Hayashida can figure it out.

» Freddie, a silent, shirtless guy who rides a horse and bears more than a passing resemblance to late Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

» A giant gorilla.

WITH A school filled with such an eclectic cast like this, it's only natural to expect the series' stories to be a bit off center as well. The anime's 15-minute episodes and manga's short stories, while looking at different aspects of life at Cromartie, often veer off into comedic directions that the audience least expects.

In one story, Hayashida tries to figure out the title of a song to which he knows the tune but not the lyrics. By humming the tune over and over, he eventually gets the entire class to start talking about it and humming it everywhere -- even in the bathroom and in gang confrontations -- to the point where they end up performing it onstage in front of an appreciative audience. (For the record, they never do figure out the song's title.)

The situations get more outrageous from there. Kamiyama earns the title of "No. 1 Boss in Japan" because he's the only one who answers a question correctly in a tournament at the Tokyo Dome. Mechazawa gets reset several times, mistaken as a refrigerator, blown apart and reconstructed as a motorcycle, and still no one recognizes him as a robot. Takenouchi inadvertently trades places with an airplane hijacker and ends up in Nevada with the hijacker ending up at Cromartie, and no one notices he's gone.

The anime takes the whole "expect the unexpected" vibe and goes a step further, cramming in random visual gags at every opportunity. You have to love a series about delinquents that can also fit in cameos by cute cat-girl Dejiko and her rival, Piyoko, from "Di Gi Charat," as well as cast ubiquitous cutesy voice actress Megumi Hayashibara as a grunting mom.

It's these gags that help cover two of this series' shortcomings: The animation style is largely similar to a jazzed-up slide-show presentation, and some of the jokes rely heavily on a knowledge of Japanese pop culture. It could be argued that the anime and manga releases complement each other in this way -- there are some jokes in the anime that can't be understood without reading the manga, yet there are visual gags that translate better in motion rather than in print.

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