"Kamogawa Horumo" is the kind of movie people flocked to in the '80s, a commercial yet not overslick feel-good fantasy/comedy with a cast of characters covering all the bases. The lovestruck underdog hero Abe (a part which would have gone to a young Michael J Fox or John Cusack back in the decade of excess, were this a Hollywood film) is played by Takayuki Yamada, happily going geek after turns in tough-guy fare like "Crows Zero". He and his fellow freshman at Kyoto University—nerdy pal Koichi (Gaku Hamada), nerdier outsider Fumi (Chiaki Kuriyama, going all out), handsome and smug Mitsuru (Takuya Ishida, channeling a "Pretty in Pink"-era James Spader), too-pretty Kyoko (Sei Ashina)—are invited to join a "totally normal" social club called the Azure Dragons. How normal are they? Very, if you ask their leader Makoto (YoshiYoshi Arakawa). He mentions it at every turn, insisting on their normality to such an extent that they could be anything but. Kyoko joins, the smitten Abe signs up to be closer to her and drags Koichi along with him, and soon the Azure Dragons have 10 new members.
Fantastic Fest director Tim League refused to give away anything about the film before screening it on opening night of the 2009 event, and I don't blame him. The fantasy element of the film is somewhat unexpected, especially if you haven't seen the preview. Japanese previews tend to give way too much away, often playing like spoilers of the films they're supposedly promoting, and "Horumo" is no exception. If you haven't seen the preview, don't; If you haven't seen the film, stop reading here and come back after you have. You'll enjoy it more going in blind, I promise.
So the movie has a lot in common with '80s fare like "Gremlins": Adorable little creatures that become less adorable under the right circumstances, a town threatened by catastrophe that can only be averted by a handful of young people, narrative drive, and special effects that enhance, not justify, the plot. Once the truth about the Azure Dragons—that they, and their three competing clubs from the other primary Kyoto universities, engage in battles using tiny smoosh-faced Oni spirits as troops according to centuries-old rules—emerges, everyone is practicing the words and gestures that control the Oni, and soon the battles are on. Like all good fantasies the world of Horumo has rules, and soon those rules are broken; the resulting chaos threatens all of Kyoto in much the same way the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man threatened New York City in “Ghostbusters”. It’s goofy, but you go with it.
Director Katsuhide Motoki's work can be divided into two categories: the popular and effects-driven Gegege no Kitaro films, which are unabashedly kid stuff but strangely stiff, and the commercial fare such as "Drugstore Girl" and "10 Promises to my Dog" which, while entertaining, feel more like product assembled from spare parts than whole films. "Horumo" reconciles the technical and functional difficulties of the former with the storytelling cues and audience-pleasing plot beats he learned from the latter, and the result feels just about perfect. Two wrongs don't make a right, but in this case, four do.
In the Pow-Wow's Top Five" list earlier this year, I placed "Kamogawa Horumo" in the same company as "Fish Story" and "Love Exposure" as one of 2009's best theatrical releases, a selection that on some levels is laughable. In no way is it in the same league as Sono's masterpiece, but it wasn't meant to be. What it is, though, is an extremely approachable and crowd-pleasing commercial film–the kind Hollywood used to make before Michael Bay millisecond edits and shakycam became the norm. Motoki's work here is best compared to that of skilled, un-auteurish craftsmen like Joe Dante and pre-CGI Bob Zemeckis, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say the Harold Ramis of "Ghostbusters". "Horumo" doesn't have the benefit of a Bill Murray to anchor it, but what it does have are laughs big and small, well-executed visual effects that serve the story, a tempo that isn't in a hurry yet never has you looking at your watch, and YoshiYoshi. It's a well-crafted popcorn movie, charming and fun.