Battle League Horumo (2009)

Movies and video games, from the latter’s birth, have shared a conflicted history together. In fact with the increased use of computer graphics as special effects in movies (i.e. CGI) and the current debate over the ‘humanization’ of games via graphics and narrative, it seems that, from this point, the two may forever be intertwined. Forays of one of these media into the other have typically met with disastrous results, though; the 1993 Super Mario Bros. movie based on the popular Nintendo game series and the 1982 Atari 2600 game based on E.T. (1982) being two reviled examples. Outside of cross-licensing, games and movies have also had a more subtle influence on each other: epic battle scenes from films such as Zack Snyder’s 2006 epic 300 have a distinct video game feel while James Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi action masterpiece Aliens has launched an army of virtual space marine protagonists into the video game world. With Battle League Horumo, we have another such movie that has some distinct influence from video games, not taking any space creature, Italian plumber, or Persian warrior as its source of influence. Instead, the film’s story is influenced more closely by games such as Pokemon and Digimon in which players train monsters and pit them against each other.

Directed by Katsuhide Motoki (10 Promises to My Dog, 2008), Battle League Horumo is about two Kyoto University freshmen, Abe (Takayuki Yamada) and Takamura (Gaku Hamada), who are recruited by upperclassman Sugawara (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) to join a university club described to them cryptically as “just a regular, ordinary club.” Eager for free food and drinks, but not particularly as much so in joining, Abe and Takamura both attend the club’s introductory meeting. When fellow freshman Sawara (played by the beautiful Sei Ashina) also attends, it’s more than enough motivation for Abe, with Takamura in tow, to join. What the whole group finds out is that – cue video game music – they are joining into a 1000 year old tradition of “horumo”. Waged among the four universities located at the four cardinal points in Kyoto, “horumo” is a sport…of sorts. Club members are trained to lead their own battalion of small demons (called oni) summoned by the four horumo teams to fight for their respective universities. The four schools then meet in tournaments in which the oni fight to determine which is the champion “horumer” (my word, not theirs). If any regiment loses its battle, its leader must face divine punishment (after one loss, Takamura is forced to cut his hair into a top knot, for example) with the only hopes of forgiveness being to yell “horumo” to appease the Gods, a sort of a spiritual version of screaming “uncle” in a sibling battle. When Abe finds out that Sawara is interested in club bad-boy Ashiya (Takuya Ishida, a Riki Takeuchi lookalike down to the snarl), he ends up invoking a horumo rule which allows fracturing of the club into rival factions who must in turn battle each other in order to appease the Gods or face opening the gates of Hell. Being the president of my high school’s photography club doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore.

If this sounds pretty silly, it is. The battles between the demons are markedly goofy and cute with gung-ho oni jumping around everywhere, pounding each others’ heads in. The ceremony to conjure them involves pleasing the Gods with a rather bawdy song and dance that involves nudity on the part of its participants. Cameos from genre stalwart Renji Ishibashi and comedian Papaya Suzuki are also hammy, good fun, with the former putting in the most over-the-top death feints this side of Fred Sanford. The fun of the film, however, is undercut by some dull writing. With his debut film, 2001’s Rendan: A Quartet for Two, screenwriter Maruo Kyozuka created a fairly dynamic script that was part drama, part dark comedy, part musical, and part tragedy. With much lighter fare, however, he relies on some stale characterizations that border on stereotype: the likable nerds Abe and Takamura, the bully/antagonist Ashiya, the mousy but reliable Kusonoki (played against type by Chiaki Kuriyama), the beautiful but poisonous Sawara, it’s all a little Breakfast Club in terms of depth, which means not much. In addition, the love triangle (actually square) part of the story drags the story down at times. Granted, the conflict between Abe and Ashiya is the complicating action that propels the narrative, more time spent on the history and background of horumo or even the immediate rivalries between the schools (a thread that’s mysteriously dropped) might have made the film more enjoyable. With that said, the cast try their best to make their characters interesting. In particular, Yamada who also played the nerdy otaku lead in Densha Otoko (2005) and greasy bad boy Tamao in Miike’s Crows Zero series (2007, 2009), with his sleepy eyes and laid back demeanor, might end up being an excellent genre lead or character actor.

Battle League Horumo is an adaptation of a 2006 best-selling fantasy novel by Manabu Makime. In 2009, the story was also adapted into a stage play by Duncan Productions, normally known for its lighter, pop approach to stage productions. Without a doubt, the filmmakers were probably trying to deliver a film along the lines which for the most part they did, but it would have been so much better if they had taken the time to ‘power up’ the script a little more.