I admit, I'm somewhat of a Yudai Yamaguchi fan. He's not the most famous of directors, but you might remember his name from Tamami and Ten Nights Of Dream. Cult fans on the other hand will surely feel more at ease with films like Meatball Machine and Battlefield Baseball. If you are one of these people, Cromartie High comes highly recommended.
It's a given that most kids don't like school too much, but Japanese kids in particular seem rather traumatized by their years of education. Proof of this can be seen in the somewhat strange sub-genre of films where high schools are ruled by violent gangs and loner punks. Films like Blue Spring, Volcano High or Crows Zero are all the result of this strange trend which started in mangas from the 70s. Cromartie High walks a similar path, but doesn't take its subject matter nearly as serious as its peers.
The Cromarty universe originated from a manga, was later turned into an anime by Production IG and finally found its way into theaters through this live action adaptation. Rather than underline the coolness of school gangs, it takes a more humorous approach, shamelessly making fun of the poser attitudes often seen in the genre. And Yamaguchi turned out to be the perfect man to transfer the less than subtle humor of Cromartie to the silver screen, seeing how closely related it is to his first film, Battlefield Baseball.
Cromartie High is the story of Kamiyama, a bright young kid who makes one erroneous decision and ends up on Cromartie High. Determined as he is, he vows to change the attitude of his fellow students, but needless to say, this is easier said than done. The first half of the film is almost entirely dedicated to introductory scenes for the main characters. Much as in the anime series this is done through sketches rather than fluid storytelling. Around the halfway point the main story is introduced, or at least what passes as a storyline. Coherence is not high on Yamaguchi's list, fun and weirdness on the other hand are off the charts.
Visually there's plenty to enjoy here. It's obvious Yamaguchi was working on a tight budget but he surely made the most of it. The agile camera work and crisp editing help a lot, some well-placed filters do the rest. The scenes that demanded an excessive amount of money were tackled from a different perspective, using old-fashioned and crude special effects for comedic effect. A perfect solution that only adds to the fun. Only a few scenes lack the level of competence expected from a professional film, but those are few and far between.
Cromartie High is rather hard to recommend to people. It all depends on how familiar you are with the source material or how many leaps of faiths you are willing to take if you aren't. From what I have read the film takes quite a few elements from its source material and thus runs the risk of alienating people not familiar with it. On the other hand, if you like this kind of humor it's not too hard to simply sit back and fill in the missing gaps yourself.
If you don't mind a bunch of 40-year old actors playing 16-year old high school student with greasy hair and no manners to speak of, you're probably fine. Unless of course you dislike monkey costumes and mecha students. Cromartie High is a prime example of crazy and weird Japanese humor, and Yamaguchi is the perfect man to lead it all to a fulfilling climax (though the actual climax of the film is completely eclipsed by a totally bizarre insert featuring Kenichi Endo). Bizarre and goofy, and incredibly funny to boot.