CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL VOLUME 1
Traversing Manga Island this week, I came across a place I hadn't explored in quite some time; High School! Although the trappings of this school seemed familiar, the characters and situations were far from mundane. The thugs with Mohawks, gorillas, and strange contests of strength made me realize that this was a strange and hilarious high school, indeed! Staring up at the sign beside the gate, I realized I was outside "Cromartie High School."
"Cromartie High School" by Eiji Nonaka takes the tough guy manga of the past and turns it on its ear. Its absurd take on the high school genre, as well as the gangs of punks seen so often in manga and anime of the '80s and early '90s, hit my funny bone as hard as a turf war rumble.
At first glance, Eiji Nonaka's art style hearkens to Ryoichi Ikegami of "Crying Freeman," "Sanctuary" and other manga fame. The art style is primarily what drew me in and got me thumbing through it. On the surface, this could be yet another hard boiled gang drama; but then gorillas, shirtless guys way too old to be in school, and tin-can-like robots started showing up and I knew this was something I should read cover to cover. Even during the wackiest scenes, the characters retain their realistic features. In the volume I read, I didn't see any cartoonish teardrops, super-deformed faces, or other hallmarks of "wacky things are going on here" visual shorthand seen in other comedy manga. I don't mind those things personally, but it's a nice touch that Nonaka never breaks the realistic model his characters have, even when they discuss things like a gorilla with a wristwatch and a cell phone in their classroom.
The premise of "Cromartie High School" begins with our hero, Takashi Kamiyama, as he writes his mother to report on his new High School environment. Kamiyama has enrolled in one of the worst high schools in Tokyo to try to keep his best friend from dropping out of school. The way Kamiyama sees it, his hoodlum friend can't possibly fail to get in to Cromartie. It's full of delinquents, and no one's ever been rejected from Cromartie. Unfortunately for Kamiyama his friend is just that stupid and unlucky. So now Kamiyama is alone, and stuck as the only honor roll student enrolled at Cromartie. He decides to make to make the best of his situation. He begins his quest to fit in, even as he is greeted by a thug who can eat all of Kiyama's pencils by the handful.
The funny part is its Kiyama's normalcy that makes him the abnormal one at Cromartie High. Of course it also gives him the edge when dealing with the less than stellar brains at the school. It's soon decided that since he is such an enigma, he must be even more of a bad dude than any of them. So as the straight man and resident braniac, Kamiyama must persevere. Of course, persevering means dealing with the crazy cast of hooligans at Cromartie. In the course of issue 1 we are introduced to the mohawked Shinjirou Hayashida and his more serious friend Akira Maeda, gang members "the Fireball of the 2nd" and the "Hospitalizer of the 3rd" (2nd and 3rd schools respectively), Harai "the Flunker" (who failed the 10th grade), and the underground kingpin of the school who bears a striking resemblance to a certain other kingpin in comics. Of course Cromartie High's kingpin has to worry about keeping his cool while fighting off bouts of car sickness, something that never happens to other "kingpins."
Rounding out the wacky cast of characters is Freddie, who everyone seems to think looks like a familiar rock star (to me he looks like a famous rock star combined with Mike Haggar of the Final Fight series for those of you into old school games), a gorilla named Gorilla, and a tin can looking robot named Mechazawa .The fact that no one seems to know whether or not Freddie and the Gorilla are actually students, or that no one seems to notice Mechazawa is not a human, is just par for the course at Cromartie High.
The absurdity of the characters and their situations had me laughing out loud and so hard that I actually had to leave the room so I wouldn't disrupt studying going on here on Manga Island over the weekend. For me Eiji Nonaka has hit it out of the park in absurdity and hilarity. With scenes like the classmates following Freddie around through his insane daily workout to find out his blood type, the gang members discussion and awe in having a "normal" non thug conversation, and the real reason that Kamiyama is as bad as the other delinquents, had me laughing till I had tears in my eyes. Scenes like these are only enhanced once the book really kicks off and the new transfer student and his henchman (who has forgotten quite why he became a henchman in the first place) try to rally the class into fighting the "Dark Prime Minister" and his shadow army. You'll have to read that one to believe it! Just when you think the absurdity and stupidity of the students of Cromartie have reached their peak, they always surprise, with a new high in low.
ADV has to be commended on the comic itself as a large part of the humor of this sort is dependent on the presentation. Included in volume 1 are a hilarious timeline, the school song, and translation notes for most of the cultural intricacies and idioms that don't readily translate from Japanese. The translation notes cover four pages and are a wealth of information that adds to the overall humor of the book, shedding light on the in-jokes in each chapter's title and small things that non-Japanese readers (or even non-Tokyo residents) may not immediately pick up on. Also included between some chapters are character bios that contain not only tidbits about the characters and their world, but also how they fit into Nonaka's world. For example he feels that Hayashida (with a Mohawk in this manga) and Maeda are his R2-D2 and C3-PO, as the pair appear throughout his works.
Eiji also doesn't make translation easy, as much of the humor is also derived from the small blurbs and asides that happen in the background of panels. The additional elements, such as using a special font for extra notes, special word balloons for in-panel jokes that are outside the knowledge of the character, and other nice production touches, make "Cromartie" stand out as what translated manga should be. Although I noticed things like what looks like a tape deck "updated" to be called a cd player, I was unaware of any translations that sounded out of place. Both Mechazawa's robot speech (in his own font) and the dramatic speech patterns of the new student (originally he spoke in an outdated formal manner), Takeshi Hokuto are handled well. It all adds up to one of the funniest manga I have read in recent memory.
If you are looking for absurdity and non-sequitor humor in abundance, "Cromartie High School" is your manga! I recommend it to fans of "tough guy" works of all sorts, especially 80's gang manga. If you are just getting into manga, but you enjoyed comics like "Flaming Carrot" and "The Tick" for their satire and out and out weirdness, you will be at home in one of the weirdest high schools ever put to paper. I also enjoyed that the manga was told as a series of loosely interconnected vignettes that slowly build on each other. It makes it easy to put down if you need to, but makes you want to pick it back up as soon as possible to see what crazy path Nonaka will lead the reader to. I've been told that "Cromartie High School" stays as funny, but gets even crazier, which is more than enough to peak my interest for the future volumes!
Additionally, ADV is releasing the anime of "Cromartie High School" at about the same time (March of 2005). Having seen only a few clips from it, it looks like a very close translation from the manga to the screen. It even has some additional site gags that make it even more hilarious in parts (and I didn't think it was possible). I can only hope that they animated the 2 bonus non-high school stories at the end of the manga. Those are comedy gold as well.
While "Cromartie High School's" humor may not be for everyone, I personally can't wait to add it to my list of manga to buy regularly. It came as an unexpected surprise and had Manga Island shaking with laughter. With an art style that will appeal to comic fans all over, and way of presenting a high school more tough and absurd than I thought possible, I say give it a chance. Be sure to pick it up in March and read it on a bus to make people steer clear of "that weird laughing person," pick up tips on how to be a tough guy, have your parents look at it and shake their head, and over all enjoy it as you travel back next time to Manga Island.
Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.