Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Cromartie High School
by Jason Thompson, May 17th 2012
Episode CVIII: Cromartie High School
"Ah. We were talking about Charlie Sheen."
"Liar! We were talking about mechanical pencils!"
"No, not whatever! We may have gotten sidetracked by Charlie Sheen, but we were originally talking about mechanical pencils! We have to get back to that before we can move on!"
—Cromartie High School
According to the best dictionaries on google, "surreal" means hallucinatory, dreamlike and strange, like a robot walking down the street and nobody noticing, or randomly falling down a manhole into an underground world inhabited by apes. But surrealism might have a sort of hidden dream logic (maybe the gorilla is a metaphor!!); whereas "absurd" things are simply illogical, unreasonable and nonsensical, with no possibility of figuring them out. Expanding from this, "absurdism" is "the philosophical and literary doctrine that human beings live in essential isolation in a meaningless and irrational world," which fits the description of some very depressing 20th-century philosophy and, strangely, a lot of really great comedy, including Eiji Nonaka's Cromartie High School.
When I first heard about Cromartie High School, I expected it was going to be like School Rumble or Real Bout High School. You know, a school comedy. Some romance, some fights, maybe some maid uniform jokes. A silly manga, but basically a narrative. Not something "meaningless and irrational." But I was wrong. Cromartie High School is one of the strangest things I've ever seen printed in a shonen manga magazine, even weirder than Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, because at least Kôji Kumeta draws cute girls to give the reader something to look at during his rants. This incredibly strange absurd-surreal gag manga somehow ran for years in a major magazine, 4 to 8 pages a week…but then again, there's some pretty insane things on Cartoon Network too, balanced out by the more normal stuff. ADV Manga translated 12 out of 17 volumes of the series, making it one of the last titles they ever released before their manga division folded completely; I remember talking on the phone to ADV Manga staff who said that as long as they had a drop of life left in them they would continue to release Cromartie High School.
Cromartie High School is about some tough dudes who go to the baddest school around. The badass name comes from former Yomiuri Giants baseball player Warren Cromartie, and the neighboring high schools that the Cromartie students are always fighting with are also named after baseball players, Orestes Destrade and Randy Bass. Sadly, Cromartie proved himself to be not in fact a badass but a total crybaby when he sued Kodansha following the release of the 2005 Cromartie live-action movie, claiming that he was being defamed by having his name attached to a high school full of "ruffians". Luckily for Nonaka, the suit didn't go anywhere, unlike hockey player Tony Twist's $15 million lawsuit against Spawn creator Todd MacFarlane for naming a villain after him without permission. (What's up with all these ungrateful athletes stopping comic creators from profiting off their identity? Heck, except for the comics, most comic fans probably wouldn't know who the athletes are anyway. At least I wouldn't.)
Cromartie's students (the human ones, anyway) are universally manly men who are supposedly teenagers but all look like they're in their 30s. With their dissheveled gakuran, broad shouldersand angry glares, they're clearly based on the badass, hardcore teenagers from yankii manga from the '70s and '80s. Specifically, Nonaka draws them like the characters from Ryoichi Ikegami's classic manga Otoko-gumi ("Men's Gang") and Otoko Oozora ("Men's Big Sky"). Exactly like them; in Japan, Ikegami apparently got fan letters, asking him why he was suddenly drawing this weird Cromartie manga. You could say it's a rip-off, except that it's obviously part of the joke; in Japan the "Ikegami look" is such the embodiment of old-school manliness, that it's like drawing an entire comic in the style of 1970s Neal Adams, with super-serious poses and square-jawed men, and changing the word balloons so that everyone's saying something idiotic. Nonaka likes to parody and deflate old-fashioned manga: the title of one of his other manga, Kachô Baka Ichidai ("The Life of a Stupid Section Chief"), is a pun on Karate Baka Ichidai ("A Karate-Crazy Life"). Aside from the fact that Nonaka actually draws a little, Cromartie isn't that different from clip-art comics, like the incredibly wrong Spider-Man strips or David Rees' My New Fighting Technique is Unstoppable. The cut-and-paste, I'm-not-trying-that-hard sensibility is also evident in Nonaka's who-cares attitude towards manga (Nonaka: "I don't really like manga that much"), which might just be part of the act, or maybe he really doesn't like manga and he's just drawing Cromartie until he can start doing a successful YouTube comedy series. Who knows?
It's hard to pin down the main character of Cromartie High School, but Takashi is at least the first character. Some of the chapters are written in the form of his letters to his mother, or maybe he just likes to think "Dear mother" in his internal monologue; it's debatable. An earnest, intense young man who talks somewhat formally, he looks just like every Ryoichi Ikegami hero. Although his academic abilities are immense, he chooses to enter Cromartie High School to fulfill a pact to a friend, vowing that even here, he'll be able to study. ("The desire to study is what's most important! If you have the will, you can learn in any environment…even Cromartie.") He's obviously not as badass as the other toughs, but as his classmates put it, he somehow seems tougher just because he looks so wimpy yet goes to Cromartie. ("It's like this. Say there was a rabbit, and it was living with a bunch of lions, and getting along just fine…that'd have to be one badass rabbit." "I get it! Damn, that rabbit rocks!')
If Takashi is the stereotypical Ryoichi Ikegami shonen manga hero, Hokuto is the stereotypical villain: an evil elitist kid from a rich family who looks down on everyone else and wants to take over the world. If this were a normal shonen manga (or a typical over-the-top manga parody), Takashi and Hokuto would get into over-the-top screaming fights shouting "HOKUTOOOOOO!!!" with flames burning in their eyes, but here, they mostly argue politely about nonsense. When Akira first shows up, his core trait is that he wishes he had a tough nickname. ("If your name is, say, 'The Black Panther of the North Sea,' or 'The Ultimate Weapon of Kinshi Town,' you have a lot more impact.") Eventually he settles on "The Dragon of Razors," but no one but himself ever calls him that. Hayashida's chief traits are that he's a total moron (although a nice guy), he looks middle-aged, and he has a very weak mohawk. In the grand tradition of comedy characters such as Peter Griffin and Homer Simpson, he's basically a formless blob of dumbness who can fit into almost any situation. Hayashida is so stupid that he is unable to do basic math; in one chapter, the other characters try vainly to teach him to subtract two from five so he can pass an upcoming test, then finally decide that the only way to teach him is by ACTION, by going to Bass High School and beating up five guys one-two-three-four-five so that Hayashida can learn to count!!! Of course, the chapter ends with them missing the test because they're suspended for fighting.
In an ordinary manga, these characters would be doing a lot more fighting, but in Cromartie, they mostly just talk. One of the recurring jokes of Cromartie is really tough dudes doing trivial, everyday things, like if you had a movie about Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarznegger brushing their teeth. Takenouchi is a teenage gang boss whose dark secret is that he gets motion sickness; whenever he's in a car, bus or any moving object, the slightest disturbance will cause him to get sick. Of course, when his gang asks him to lead them Bass High School to beat up some punks, they end up going in a taxi instead of walking, and Takenouchi has to try hard not to throw up. (Takenouchi: "I don't want to hear about any nasty shit. Or about how it's hot out, or how you feel tired. Nothing negative. If you go talking about that kinda stuff before a brawl, it kills the tension." Gangbangers: "Then what should we talk about?" Takenouchi: "I guess you could talk about, say, the gentle breeze that blows softly across the plains. Somethin' like that'd be best.") Or take Noboru: his secret is that he's not just a badass gang boss, he's a wannabe comedian. Unfortunately, like the heroine of Morita-san wa Mukuchi, he's always too slow on the draw to say the awesome one-liners that he has in his head, and he spends way too much time getting angry about how bad other comedians are, especially "Pootan," an inexplicably popular TV show starring two grown men in animal suits. Kiyoshi is a vicious thug in real life but incredibly polite online; he'll kick any man's ass over the slightest thing IRL, but he never loses his temper over anything computer-related.
Inane conversations and reversal of shonen manga tropes: how absurd! Next, the surrealism. The weirdness level of Cromartie starts to go up almost immediately, when Takashi goes to meet the 'baddest dude in school' and discovers that it is Freddie Mercury. ("The guy's unbelievable! I'm tellin' ya, as long as he's here, every day is gonna be like some kinda badass Olympics.") Well, at least he looks like Freddie Mercury, but since he never actually speaks, and might not even be a student, it's hard to know what he's actually doing in high school. Then there are the "Four Great Ones" of Cromartie High, who look exactly like the band K.I.S.S. ("We came together out of a honest desire to fuse rock and badassness"), except that there are five of them and they spend most of their time discussing minutiae, like the best way to walk down the sidewalk. Then there's the gorilla. And the lovable baby seal. And Mechazawa, the robot. Mechazawa is one of the most trustworthy, smartest dudes in school, a great person to have at your back during a fight, although you might also mistake him for a dishwasher or a vending machine. In fact, it's unclear whether he actually realizes that he's a robot, since only Takashi and Hayashida seem to think there's anything strange about him, and they can't bring themselves to ask him about it because it'd be too rude. At one point he is broken apart and reassembled as a motorcycle, but still, everyone insists on treating him like a human. ("Yes, he's a bike…but until recently, he was also a friend, one who wore a uniform and came to class just like the rest of us. I'd have a real problem goin' up to the guy and saying something like, 'You're a motorcycle, aren't you?”)
Cromartie is not punchline-based humor; it's so-stupid-and-bizarre-you-just-stare-at-it humor. The characters don't comment on the absurd things that happen, like when someone does something silly in One Piece and the other characters all shout "Kono baka!"; the absurd things are served up straight. It's like boke without tsukkomi. The dumb jokes lead into rambling, random storylines, like the chapter when Takenouchi is caught up in a plane hijacking, and ends up making the situation even worse because he doesn't want the plane to take off because he's afraid of getting motion sickness. He eventually goes with one of the masked hijackers to Nevada, while the other masked hijacker stays behind and gets mistaken for Takenouchi (maybe because "take" is written on his mask), and ends up going to high school in Takenouchi's place. The real Takenouchi ends up working for the US mafia (they ask him to drive a tank), whereas the Masked Takenouchi drifts away from terrrorism and eventually ends up selling 'pillow sticks' which people use to whack pillows to make them softer. ("I see—so this company is in the business of hitting pillows with sticks." "No—we make the sticks!") Still later, Masked Takenouchi switches careers yet again and becomes a successful sumo wrestler.
Manga tends to be passionate and over-the-top; what makes Cromartie so funny is that it's the opposite. It's under-the-top. Maybe, like "Pootan," it just seems dumb to some people, but if you think it's dumb you're halfway there. When you think it's so dumb you start cracking up, you're arrived. It's a shame it's out of print, and I'd love to see a license rescue or see more of Nonaka's work translated. There's nothing less funny than someone explaining a joke, so the best way to describe Cromartie is to just shove it in someone's hands and make them read it. Consider it shoved.
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