I have the same problem talking about Cromartie High School that I did talking about Azumanga Daioh: I can talk about the words, but not the music. Adjectives like “deranged”, “demented” and “surreal” sort of fit the bill, but again, they’re just labels—they don’t really describe how the show functions like that. Maybe it’s better if I start by saying that Cromartie had me laughing harder and longer than almost anything I’ve seen out of Japan recently—certainly more than Haré+Guu, which had an inspired opening that it never followed up on. Cromartie comes out of the gate sprinting and never stops.
The show’s an adaptation of an equally bizarre and hilarious four-panel comic series, now also available in English, and the adaptation is faithful enough that many of the situations are essentially reiterated line-for-line. This isn’t a bad thing: they were funny on paper, and through a peculiar attention to how the show is put together, they’re funny on the screen as well. Sometimes this sort of thing doesn’t work at all, or stumbles—the comic version of Excel Saga is not only a little funnier than its TV antecendent, it’s actually more interesting—but here it all clicks.
The show allegedly deals with a collection of delinquent students in “the worst school in Tokyo”, Cromartie High, but don’t believe it for a second. Yes, there’s a bunch of students and yes, they’re delinquents in school, but the show is not really about any of that stuff (there are apparently no teachers and no classes). The setting is just a launching platform for a series of increasingly outlandish situations. Consider the main character, Kamiyama, a classic example of a shonen straight-arrow character: he writes his mother dutifully, actually cares about getting good grades, and would sooner jump off the roof than disappoint anybody. The genius of the show is how his personality (and everyone else’s) is made into comedy—as when he inadvertently one-ups a rival in a joke contest, not just once but again and again.
One basic approach the show takes to its characters is to place them in the one exact situation where they are helpless, watch them flail around, and then move on to another gag before it wears out its welcome. The best example of this is another student, a bullet-headed bruiser who never loses a fight, but has one enormous weakness: he gets motion-sick easily. He ends up on a school trip…on a bus that winds through an endless array of mountain roads. Kamiyama feels bad for the guy, and offers him a generous helping of his pudding snacks—after which we cut to the poor dude being taken off the bus in a stretcher. The joke gets revisited again later with a whole new set of parameters (this time it’s a taxi), but it becomes all the funnier now that we know what can happen, and the punchline made me spit coffee at the screen.
Another way the show works is to give the characters a situation that’s impossibly weird, and have them react to it totally straight. One of the other kids in the school is Mechazawa, a robot—except that he never says he’s a robot, and nobody ever works up the nerve to say that Mechazawa is a robot, but boy do they ever find clever ways to skirt the issue. (At one point someone gives their CD player to Mechazawa to fix and he shrugs it off, insisting he’s no good with machines.) What’s weird is that normally this kind of humor grates on my nerves—there’s nothing more painful than a joke that overstays its welcome—but somehow the way it’s staged and played off in Cromartie is genuinely funny, and stays funny.
Then there are things that have no precedent in anything at all—like the student who never says a word and looks exactly like Freddie Mercury, or the two gorillas who are somehow also students, or the weird little Jack Davis-like non-sequitur happenings taking place in the corners of the frame during the most straight-laced scenes. None of this stuff is in itself automatically funny, but in context with everything else it’s inexplicably hilarious. The show also doesn’t waste any time: each episode is only 15 minutes long, so instead of taking one basic idea (or two, or three) and drawing it out interminably, it packs as much as it can into a smaller space and probably works that much better as a result.
Cromartie was recommended to me by a good friend who shares some of the same sense of humor I do, and understands that of all the possible genres a piece of entertainment can inhabit, comedy is one of the hardest to get right. This show gets it right by having its characters play everything as straight as possible, a tactic which runs the risk of failing miserably if they don’t keep it up just right. Here, they pull it off, and then some.
New York City
Other Lives Of The Mind