Fierce Oni Battle! Fight!
“Battle League Horumo” (“Kamogawa horumo” or “Duck River Horumo”) is just a brilliant little film. Based on the popular fantasy novel of the same name, the film combines the bizarre, outrageous antics and high energy that I love in Japanese comedy with authentic folklore and solid acting with an all-star cast.
Anyone who has spent some time in Japan has encountered some strange festival in the summer, with people in period costumes performing some millennium-old dance-ritual in order to gain the blessings of the kami spirits. “Battle League Horumo” asks the question, “What if those gods were real, but you just couldn’t see them?”
The story begins when freshmen student Akira Abe (Takayuki Yamada, known the world over as Train Man) begins his first year at the prestigious Kyoto University. Abe has been studying hard at cram school for two years, but has finally made it. He soon finds himself recruited by a club, the Azure Dragons, who protest a little too much that they are just a “normal club doing normal things.” The club president Makoto Sugawara (YoshiYoshi Arakawa from Ping Pong, Kamikaze Girls) soon reveals that there is nothing “normal” about the Azure Dragons at all. They are, in fact, a secret club that participates in a thousand-year old ritual known as Horumo, where each member controls an army of “oni” spirits that battle with other spirits in order to please the gods with the spectacle.
Abe’s finds it hard to take this seriously, and would quit the club if it were not for the presence of Kyoko Sawara (Sei Ashina, “Kamui”), a girl with a perfect nose who infatuates Abe immediately. So blinded by Sawara is Abe that he cannot see the rivalry of Alpha-male clubmate Mitsuru Ashiya (Takuya Ishida, The Samurai I Loved) or the attentions of nerd girl Fumi Kusunoki (Chiaki Kuriyama, Gogo Yubari from Kill Bill – Volume One). Finding himself sucked into the club, Abe trains in earnest with his oni army yet he fights more to impress Sawara than to please the gods, something that will lead to devastating consequences. The gods of Japan are not pleased when their pleasures are interrupted by petty mortal concerns.
Aside from the story, a big part of the draw of “Battle League Horumo” is going to be the “oni” themselves. While far from the traditional oni of Japanese folklore, these little spirits have more in common with the Mogwai from Gremlins. They are fully 3D rendered animation, done by Studio Gonzo who is well known for their CGI work on series like Last Exile and Blue Submarine, No. 6. They aren’t the most realistic computer animated characters ever, but they aren’t supposed to be and their cuteness is just right for the tone of the film. The oni battles themselves are hilarious, as the members of the clubs control the oni through a series of commands in the “oni language” combined with a sequence of gestures and hip-thrusts.
Another draw for this flick is the cast, and there are so many familiar faces and a lot of them playing against type. Chiaki Kuriyama in particular is usually positioned as a total sex symbol in tight-fitting costumes like in The Great Yokai War, but instead she is dressed in boy’s clothes with square-rimmed glasses and a big wig that makes her look like 80s sitcom actor Ouki Bondo. Takayuki Yamada is still a lovable loser like he was in “Train Man,” but he gets to be a little cooler here even though he is clearly not top dog.
Although it is billed as an Action/Comedy, the emphasis is far more on the comedy than the action. Much of the antics are typical Japanese over-the-top physical comedy, like all the boys getting naked and performing a choreographed pop routine at the shrine in order to gain the god’s favor, or when league member Koichi Takamura is forced to wear a giant samurai topknot as punishment for his cowardice in the oni battle.
The Abe/Sawara/Ashiya love triangle could have come straight from a John Hughs film, with the rich macho jerk mistreating his beautiful girlfriend, only to get comeuppance when a poor but sensitive guy steals her away. However, that isn’t quite the way things resolve here much to my surprise and delight.
All in all a fantastic film that I completely enjoyed. Highly recommended.