Cromartie High School

Absurd comedy is very hard to get right. A little goes a long way, and the slightest timing makes the difference between a joke's success and failure. Too crazy, and the audience won't follow; too mild, and the show is only worth a shrug; too stupid, and you'll only appeal to Americans. (Rim shot, please...) As the recent Arakawa Under The Bridge pointed out, absurd humor wears out its welcome very quickly unless it's infused with romance, sentimentality, and plot...which kinda destroys the point. I admire those who can make it work.

Cromartie High School does exactly that. Uproarious at times, always good for a chuckle, Cromartie plays a nearly perfect hand. By keeping its nonsense to roughly 10-minute chunks, Cromartie gets in, makes us laugh, and gets out. Combining satire and strange behaviors and plain silliness, Cromartie is a very smart take on very stupid people. While not a show I'd suggest marathoning, Cromartie High School is among the best in its subgenre. (And if you want to read my original take on the first volume, you can find it here; some material from there is re-jiggered as part of this review, and it's probably better than this one.)

Every culture has its teen toughs, its greasers and leatherheads and brawlers. Those guys all go to Cromartie High School. Young punks from all over Tokyo show up there. Problem is, Takashi Kamiyama is not a punk. In fact, he's very possibly the only person in Cromartie that doesn't want that label. Though a screw-up we're told to read the manga to explore, he wound up not going to a top-tier school but this home for the terminally delinquent.

Kamiyama tries to lay low, but he's quickly pointed out as a contender; after all, isn't it the guys who seem most normal who go crazy when the fists start flying? And even crazy guys look relatively ordinary at Cromartie. After all, when your classmates include a gorilla, Mechazawa (the kid who nobody can confront about know...a robot), and a guy that looks and acts an awful lot like the mute version of the late, great Freddie Mercury, it takes a bit to stand out in the crowd.

But the deeper, harder truth is this...they are all pretty nice guys, even the ones from a rival school that kidnap Cromartie students trying to start a turf war. They would as soon write jokes for radio shows as get into a knife fight. The most hard-boiled battler suffers from uncontrollable motion sickness. How can you prove your toughness when you're a bunch of boiled Jello inside?

Cromartie is a show for those seeking a laugh, not those who are impressed by beautiful artwork. The animation is minimal (and the cast makes jokes about it often), the running time brief, and the music hummed. (Well, not always, but there's an episode about it.) However, this all works in the show's favor. This is one of those programs where I can't critique the artistic qualities; they aren't what the hullabaloo is about. What I can say is that nothing distracts us from the point of the show, which is to laugh for several minutes straight. (And while anime humor doesn't always cross over well into English, the dub is excellent.)

It might help to be aware of the "tough guy" genre in anime to really get all the jokes, and the source material for much of the satire is nearly non-existent in the West save for a few scanlations here and there. But having seen the whole series now, I am impressed with how the whole thing holds together. There is no overarching theme; the guys never study, and it seems unlikely they will ever graduate. There is no point. Yet the show pulls together a great assortment of running gags that never get stale. There isn't enough time for any joke to get too old, and running only as long as a normal 13-episode series, it concludes well before its sell-by date. You could want for more, and there's always the manga for more.

In my original review, I noted how despite the "tough guy" profanity, the show was never offensive. That's a dangerous statement to make after watching just one DVD in a set; after all, no one knew where Evangelion or Excel Saga were going to go after one disc either. I am pleased, however, that there are none of the sexist and sexual jokes that anime comedies are known for. Part of that stems from the fact that there are virtually no women in the series. You might complain that these guys aren't that tough if they aren't cruising for chicks. But then again, that's part of the point; they want to be seen as the baddest guys this side of Harlem, but they are almost sweet. It's slightly disappointing that the language would keep kids from seeing it; when I described Mechazawa and his misadventures to my 10-year-old son, he thought it was hysterical. Give him a few years, though, and it will be a show I can watch with him without ever getting red-faced.

While I like the insane characters and slightly stupid antics of Cromartie, I think I really fell in love with the show because it captures the ridiculousness of adolescence. I've watched (and even enjoyed) many slice-of-life shows set in high school with their festivals and rituals and awkward "will they or won't they" dating setups. They're fine; some of them are great.

But Cromartie doesn't send up those shows. Instead, it riffs on the parts of growing up that don't make any sense -- that no matter how nuts things around you are, you can still be bored. That people are random space cadets around age 15. That most kids aren't so interested in being considered cool as much as they want to avoid being ostracized. That when you look around in the halls, no matter how strange or nerdy or awesome you are, there's always somebody even weirder or dorkier or cooler than you. And because Cromartie does it so well, we never focus on the underlying commentary. It's just darn funny. But I kinda wish that Cromartie had been around when I was in school. It might have pointed out to me that the guy who stuffs you in your locker at lunch every day really just wants to be a stand-up comedian. Or something like that.

The only reason that Cromartie High School doesn't wind up with a perfect score is because, like almost every comedy, some episodes are funnier than others. There wasn't a single episode I thought was bad, but a few are merely enjoyable rather than knock-down-your-door-and-pluck-your-feathers funny. It's really hard for a comedy to hit its marks every time out of the gate, so take it as a compliment that virtually every joke in Cromartie works on some level, even if just to get a tiny smile. As another note, this kind of humor gets a little old if you try to watch too much of it at once, so I suggest fitting in a couple of episodes in-between runs of your favorite angst-ridden drama for some needed hilarity.

I don't know that I've seen another anime even remotely like Cromartie High School, and that's sad. I could handle a lot more of this kind of amusement in my life. And while you might find its humor a little outside your tastes, I'd still give it a try. This skewed look at teenage life is definitely goofy, but wacky humor rarely gets better than this.

Cromartie High School -- mild violence, frequent but minor profanity -- A