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Fantastic Fest Review: Kamogawa Horumo — Battle League in Kyoto

By  · Published on September 25th, 2009

I’m not sure how a movie about a secretive group of students competing in an underground fighting group where they control unseen God Spirits could be so merely passable, but after watching Kamogawa Horumo – Battle League in Kyoto, I at least know that it’s possible.

Akira Abe (Takayuki Yamada) foolishly joins a strange club in order to get closer to the beautiful Kyoko (Sei Ashina). They go rafting, throw parties, and have the ability to see and control Oni (the tiny demon trolls of Japanese lore) in epic battles. Apparently, Kyoto University doesn’t have a football team.

The film isn’t all that bad. There are a lot of funny moments that translate beyond cultural borders – a hapless fool in love, a ridiculous sidekick character that gets stranger as time progresses, and the continual cute overload of the CGI Oni – and the characters are pretty likable. Sort of. Most of the time. There’s nothing really complex going on, which works in the film’s favor. It would be difficult enough to explain the phenomenon of a totally unknown war waged under our very noses, especially since those unseen wars are tantamount to the weekly high school soccer match. To be fair, no soccer match I’ve ever played cursed its players for acting foolishly, but some guys did end up shaving their heads into top knots for various reasons, so the analogy stands.

Battle League takes tongue-in-cheek to new depths, starting off with the club’s leader expressing just how normal, everyday, plain, and average the group he wants all the freshman to join is. It becomes a bit of a running gag, but it’s only the tip of the wink-wink iceberg. Most of it is funny, and some of it simply falls flat or ruins the tone of an otherwise intense battle sequence.

Also, by “intense,” I mean that CGI Kewpie Dolls are getting bopped in the nose until their souls exit their cute little bodies.

Unfortunately, beyond a ridiculous premise that should have been reserved for an action flick, this movie just doesn’t make all that much sense. Director Katsuhide Motoki has flashes of inspiration in creating interesting character dynamics, but for the most part, storylines dead end or change direction without much warning. A love triangle exists for no more reason than to create inner conflict for the group (the main character isn’t even dating Kyoko, never makes a move, never asks her out, but then treats her like she’s his girlfriend), Abe and his best friend (who he hates) have the same fight about three times, and the final climax is set in motion by a decision Abe makes, then rescinds, then re-engages. Clearly, coherency was not the goal here.

But if it wasn’t, the action sequences should have been. Instead, we’re treated to human doing the same repetitive motions over and over and over and over and over again while a pile of CGI fights with itself in the most confusing way possible. Being bad or good at the sport is never explained, and characters who panic on the least intense field of battle of all time made me want to throw things despite my knowing they were fictional and not actually in the room.

The movie is fairly average all the way around. There are moments that light up really well, but the characters are ultimately either completely morons or annoying in other ways. Normally, that wouldn’t matter for a high-concept like this, but too many storylines are injected into it without being followed through coherently that the good time is ruined. Yes, part of me was totally happy watching CGI troll Gods fight to the death and be resurrected by eating raisins (did I not mention that yet?), but the execution is so forgettable that I can’t even think of a good analogy for it.

The Upside: An interesting concept, a few laughs, and a tone that’s consistently strange throughout.

The Downside: Annoying characters, stories that go nowhere, and a ton that’s consistently strange throughout.

On the Side: Did you know that Oni are usually huge, monstrous, semi-devilish looking creatures, but that this film decided they would look cuter if they were tiny and fell over easily?

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