Director – Katsuhide Motoki, Screenplay – Maruo Kyozuka, Based on the Novel by Manabu Makime, Producers – Takashi Yajima & Chiaki Noji, Photography – Shoji Ebara, Music – Yoshikazu Suo, Visual Effects – Cine Pictures, Cinegirot, Gonzo, Image Annex & Maximage, Production Design – Takashi Nishimura. Production Company – Shochiku/Kanogawa Horumo Pictures.
Takayuki Yamada (Akira Abe), Sei Ashina (Kyoko Sawara), Chiaki Kuriyama (Fumi Kusunoki), Gaku Hamada (Koichi Takamura), YosoYoso Arakawa (Makoto Sugawara), Takuya Ishida (Mitsuru Ashiya), Tamiyasi Cho (Akahito Kakimoto), Renji Ishibashi (Pub Owner), Takayo Mimura (Tomiko Takanobu)
Akira Abe is a student at Kyoto University. He and his friend Takamura are invited to join the Azure Dragon club. The group seems eccentric and the leader overly insistent on how normal they are. Akira is taken by the beauty of one of the girls, Kyoko Sawara. After the introductory meeting, he comes across her crying and invites her back to his dormitory where she spends the night. He immediately joins the Azure Dragons in order to see her again. There they learn that the club is about harnessing Oni spirits in combat tournaments. Initially sceptical about the existence of the Oni, they are invited to learn to speak the Oni language. Gradually, the tiny Oni figures become apparent to them and they train in how to command and send them in attack formation against teams from Kyotos three other universities. When Akira learns that Kyoko is going out with teammate Ashiya, he becomes upset and wants to quit the Azure Dragons. The coach says this would not be a good idea and invokes an obscure law that allows them to split the ten-person team in two. However, this displeases the gods who cause a vast black demonic cloud to form over the city. The only choice to prevent all-out chaos is for the two teams to take one another on in combat.
Battle League Horumo is a Japanese fantasy film. It is taken from a best-selling 2006 novel by Japanese author Manabu Makime whose work was subsequently filmed as Princess Toyotomi (2011). Director Katsuhide Motoki had previously made Tenamonya Shosha (1998), Drugstore Girl (2004), Kitaro (2007), Kitaro and the Millennium Curse (2008) and 10 Promises to My Dog (2008) and subsequently went on to the science-fiction film Welcome Home, Hayabusa (2012) and Samurai Hustle (2014).
It took me a long time to get into Battle League Horumo. Conceptually, it seems like a collision between a standard Japanese high school drama (of which the country produces a great many) and one of their Pokemon films about the collection of miniature creatures. The film builds up well where the introduction of Azure Dragons is played with comic amusement and we are drawn into Takayuki Yamadas adoration of the impossibly beautiful seeming Sei Ashina. There is a bizarre wackiness to the film when the creatures are unveiled, looking like cousins to The Smurfs, and we see the students going into battle with hordes of them, posing their arms and even butts to direct them in attack formation.
On the other hand, while the film sets up the premise of battle tournaments involving cute little creatures, it never does much with the creatures. Instead, it seems to spend much of its running time on a story that is told by the cliches of the high school drama – Takayuki Yamada being caught in a triangle of desire between Sei Ashina and Chiaki Kuriyama; his having to stand up to a confident and cockily assured bully/rival (Takuya Ishida) – or the sports film – the hero taking a fall due to his hubris/failings and having to go away to learn what it takes to stand up and win; the epic all-or-die battle where in this case the fate of the world literally hangs in the balance unless the hero and his rival can overcome their pride and admit defeat.
Throughout these scenes, Battle League Horumo raises the odd laugh at the quirkiness of its characters – Chiaki Kuriyama, better known as Gogo Yubari in Quentin Tarantinos Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) as an unnaturally awkward and nerdy bespectacled girl; Gaku Hamada and his sudden decision to adopt a traditional samurais topknot; YosoYoso Arakawa and his constant insistence that everything in the club is perfectly normal. However, most of the show passes by unexceptionally, the direction never seems to rise above a kitchen sink approach, while the laughs produce never much more than the odd smile. There is a crucial disappointment at the lack of the Oni creatures on screen and the feeling that overly much of the running time is given over to the high school/sports team dramatics.
All of that said, Battle League Horumo finally gets itself together in the last twenty minutes. In these scenes, it lets the Oni creatures and the two teams loose against one another, first on the battlefield and then out into the streets of Kyoto. Here Katsuhide Motoki, with expert aid from several visual effects houses, has a great deal of fun showing the miniature creatures wheeling around in attack formation, bashing each other with cudgels, even forming battering rams and ganging up on human opponents, the spirits of the downed ones departing heavenwards, not to mention the two girls of the opposing teams showing down. It is here that Battle League Horumo finally reaches the height of wacky dementia that it promises to at the outset.