When I was 13, I belonged to a neighborhood gang called, ironically, “The Hoods.” We committed minor acts of vandalism as a sort of game and talked about invading the turf of a rival gang a few blocks over (but never got around to it). We were, to put it plainly, idiots.
Based on Usamaru Furuya’s horror manga of the same name, “Litchi Hikari Club” (“Raichi☆Hikari Kurabu”), directed by Eisuke Naito, imagines a gang of junior high school boys on a completely different, psychopathic level of bad. It’s as if the Marquis de Sade had penned “Peter Pan” instead of J. M. Barrie. But the film’s portrayal of evil is elaborately stylized and staged, with its teen protagonists behaving more like manga archetypes than flesh-and-blood boys who play chess, mess with computers and obsess over girls.
The title organization was once known as the “Light Club.” Its founders were three boys — Tamiya, Kaneda and Tabuse (aka “Duff”) — who made an abandoned factory their secret clubhouse. But, as the film begins, the club’s leader is now Tsunekawa aka “Zera” (Yuki Furukawa), a bespectacled chess prodigy who is the leader of eight classmates that act like disciples of an unholy faith.
This faith’s object of worship is youthful beauty, while its demons are adults, those who have committed the sin of aging. From metallic junk and circuit boards, the boys fashion a giant robot they dub “Litchi,” after the lychee, Zera’s favorite fruit. They plan to kidnap beautiful girls using this big square-jawed man-machine, and bring them back to their lair for nonsexual worship.
This bare description may sound comic, and Naito, whose 2011 directorial debut was the similarly themed “Let’s Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club” (“Sensei wo Ryuzan Saseru Kai,” supplies touches of black humor. But when the boys capture, torture and kill an adult teacher, there are no laughs — except the cackling variety.
“Litchi Hikari Club” is set in a grim alternative universe of belching chimneys, gritty skies and industrial waste. But the boys are familiar marginal types, including the flamboyantly gay Jaibo (Shotaro Mamiya), who is in love with Zera; the fanatical loyalist Niko (Junya Ikeda), who has given an eye to the cause; and the nerdy Dentaku (Junki Tozuka), the main designer of Litchi. Tamiya (Shuhei Nomura), a club co-founder who finally rebels against Zera’s dictatorship, is the one beacon of normality and sanity.
The film elides the story of Zera’s rise to power, making the life-and-death authority he has over his followers somewhat puzzling. Though more arrogant and self-confident than the average 13-year-old, he is shown as a sports-allergic bookworm prior to his ascension — hardly prime material for the junior high school elite.
Another enigmatic figure is Kanon (Ayami Nakajo), the first beautiful girl — by Zera’s standards — Litchi kidnaps. Instead of an object of passive worship, however, she becomes an agent of disruption, beginning with her winning of Litchi’s not-so-mechanical heart.
But just when the film is becoming a mash-up of “Beauty and the Beast” and “Pinocchio,” with Litchi fulfilling his dream of love and manhood (or in his case, man-machine-hood), twists multiply and the pace quickens. And we are abruptly reminded why the film’s “horror” label still applies.
Its good-bad divide, however, is as black-and-white as a folktale’s (or a commercial manga’s), making its surprises less than surprising — save perhaps for the last.
Love conquers, as we all we knew it would, but it takes many forms and paths. And not even a teenage chess master can track them all.