Hard-Core (Japan, 2018) [NYAFF 2019)
Adapting a manga into a film is an extremely difficult endeavor, one that many filmmakers often underestimate when they latch on to a popular title, expecting that the same success will transfer over to the silver screen. The world of manga is diverse, yet like any unique medium, it comes with its own style and set of expectations that do not necessarily overlap with those of cinema. To make it work on screen, filmmakers can either change the material so much that it becomes unrecognizable, such as in the case of Park Chan-wook’s iconic take on Oldboy (2003); or stick with it and embrace the idiosyncrasies, as, for example, in Death Note (the 2006 one, not the Netflix adaptation). The middle ground usually does not work.
Hard-Core, the latest film by Tamako in Moratorium (2013) and Over the Fence (2016) director Nobuhiro Yamashita, is an adaptation that takes the middle ground and tries really hard to make it work. Based on a relatively unknown manga from the early 1990s by writer Marley Carib (writer of Old Boy) and illustrator Takashi Imashiro, Hard-Core presents an interesting case study of a group of characters (human or otherwise) that can’t fit in Japan’s modern society. In a mixture between family drama, bizarre science-fiction, and dark comedy, Hard-Core treads a very fine line between the serious and the ridiculous, an undertaking that is perhaps not as effective in execution as it might appear on paper.
Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) is a self-described “loser” and socially inept man in his 30s, working for an organization spearheaded by an elderly katana-swinging nationalist by the name of Kaneshiro (Takuzo Kubikukuri). Kaneshiro’s ultimate goal in life (one that Ukon seems to share) is to “reeducate the country’s youth.” To fund this ambition, Kaneshiro and his right-hand man, Mizunuma (Suon Kan), are determined to dig up an old shogun’s forgotten treasure, which they believe is buried in the caverns outside of town. Once a week, Ukon and his best friend, Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), a mentally challenged runaway whose parents have given up on bringing back home, dig for Kaneshiro in hope of finding the gold.
When he’s not digging, Ukon spends his time drinking in bars and getting into senseless fights with strangers. Occasionally he tries to help Ushiyama hire a prostitute, but their combined awkwardness prevents them from “sealing the deal.” Their routine changes when the duo discovers a robot at the basement of an abandoned chemical factory, which despite looking like a pair of garbage cans tied together, is in fact the most advanced piece of technology in the world. Robo-o, as they nickname the robot, can do a lot of impressive things. He can fly in a manner reminiscent of The Iron Giant (1999), get them out of violent scrapes with gangsters, and even find the shogun’s lost gold. Soon, Ukon’s brother, Sakon (Takeru Satoh), also enters into the picture, though he’s mainly concerned at figuring out how to make a profit with Robo-o. Eventually, the three make a plan to steal the shogun’s gold and sell it in Hong-Kong, though they soon find themselves in a lot more trouble than they expected.
The plot is somewhat fragmented and picaresque. The first half of the film resembles far more a series of scenes casually strung together than a coherent whole. There is little sense of order or causality between them. Only once they discover the shogun’s gold in the second half of the film, does the plot begin to move with a sense of direction (albeit a minor one). This approach would have worked better if only there was a more solid emotional or thematic through-line that tied the seemingly disparate scenes together. Otherwise the characters’ actions and motivations exist in a vacuum. When Ukon passionately defends Robo-o against his brother, nothing that has happened prior to that scene really justifies his action. We only know of his emotional attachment to the robot because he tells us as much. There haven’t been any significant scenes between them until that moment.
Where the film works better is in its sparing use of deadpan comedy, perfectly executed by the leads, Yamada and Arawaka, whose affinity for their characters clearly shows on screen. Hard-Core is a film about two men living in a world that was not made for them. Ukon and Ushiyama see themselves as outsiders in their own community, like fish out of water, except that they don’t really want to go back in. In a sense, their life is a constant struggle between the desire to adapt, and the impossibility to do so. The result is a permanent stasis, and their only achievement is recognizing their inescapable loneliness.
Ultimately, I can’t say I enjoyed Hard-Core very much, but I did find the two leads genuinely interesting, so I wish the film had given them a more deserving plot. While audiences may find some merit in the humor or in the absurd predicament of the characters, they’re unlikely to find much else. The overall experiencefails to live up to its ambitions.
Hard-Core is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival 2019 on June 29.