Cromartie High School

Has the word "punk" ever had a full definition? It defines a certain style of rock music that used to be associated with teenage revolution but has dissolved into a loud mess of pop angst in freshman dorm rooms across the country. It once meant you had colored hair shaved into odd combinations. Sometimes, it just meant you were rude and obnoxious, ready for a fight but stupid enough to think that fighting made you cool. So what would a school of modern-day punks look like? You need look no further than Cromartie High School. Utilizing the "half-show" method, where each episode winds up about 12 minutes long, Cromartie takes us into an all-boys school where every last cretin in the joint fancies himself a tough guy. Based on the first DVD I was recently sent by ADV Films, I will be clamoring for this show with each new release. This is simply the most hysterical anime comedy I've seen in years.

Takashi Kamiyama is not a punk. In fact, he's very possibly the only person in Cromartie that doesn't want that label. Though he apparently did well on his entrance exam, something got screwed up along the way, and he wound up at the school for the delinquent and otherwise disturbed. (A quick, jokey blurb tells us we should read the manga if we expect to find out exactly how this happened.) Kamiyama is trying 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 the late, great Freddie Mercury, it takes a bit to stand out in the crowd.

From the format of the show, I can only imagine this was a late-nighter. 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.

Like the first episodes of the classic show Urusei Yatsura, the stories are all short and relatively self-contained. I had forgotten, though, just how refreshing this can be. A good standup comic stays on one topic only for a few minutes at most; much longer and the material dries up as your audience withers in their beers. Much of what's wrong with today's American sitcoms is that they take a topic and hammer it to death because they have to double the joke's natural shelf life. Cromartie skewers the whole tough-guy genre in bite-size bits that left me rolling, then waiting for more. Although ADV has put 8 episodes on the first disc, giving it a running time of about two hours, this is the kind of show where the shortness of the episodes just makes you crave more. It's really that solid.

As I received a preview disc earlier than the final release that was just a dub of the series, I started with it first. (The official release does have both a sub and dub--don't worry.) The English version is directed by the notorious Stephen Foster, who's been accused more than once by the anime community of unnecessarily rewriting dub scripts on several shows. Don't let that bother you. By the time I'd gotten through four episodes, I had no interest in seeing the Japanese variant--this crew has got the characters under control, and the English version cooks. I do believe that anime dubbing is finally maturing, and Cromartie is an example of good work. Does it exactly match the original? Honestly, I don't care. It's darn funny in English just the way it is.

Now I must admit that I have always been partial to satirical genres, and Cromartie owes a debt of gratitude to other shows that came before it. Bomber Bikers of Shonan did the same sort of thing tearing apart all the gearhead stereotypes, and there are certain elements here that a seasoned anime fan has seen before. But the comedy just keeps on striking unique notes that made me laugh. It's the way Takashi's friend Hayashida can't keep control of his "mohawk" tuft of hair with a mind of its own. It's how a rival school's leader just wants to send in jokes to radio shows instead of beating the crap out of other bruisers. Cromartie is just plain hilarious. And for its mild roughhousing and strong "tough guy" language (of which there is admittedly quite a bit), it never offended me. These days, I have come to expect offensiveness in comedies; this was a nice change, though the language would still rate a PG-13.

Will it continue to please at the pace of its first several episodes? I dunno. All I know is that I loved it, and I can say with confidence that this is a show you should check out. If just to see Freddie Mercury again. (Sniff, sniff.)

Cromartie High School Vol. 1 -- mild violence, strong language -- A