With Hard-Core (2018), Nobuhiro Yamashita, known from narratives like the amusing Linda, Linda, Linda (2005) and the touching Over The Fence (2016), brings Takashi Imashiro’s manga series “Hado Koa Heisei Jigoku Burazazu” to life on the silver screen. Is this manga-adaptation a worthy addition to the growing library of manga adaptations or should it have stayed a manga?
Ukon Gondo (Takayuki Yamada [Shinjuku Swan (2015)]) might not be the most social person, he does work for a left-wing nationalistic politician, Ginjiro Kinjo (Takuzo Kubikukuri) – i.e. giving flyers to passerby’s while this politician speeches. One day, due to the same politician, Ukon starts working at a mine in Gunma prefecture in search for the lost treasure of a shogun. At this work – a work led by Mizunuma (Suon Kan), he befriends a strange guy named Ushiyama (YoshiYoshi Arakawa [Fine, Totally Fine (2008)]).
Sakon (Takeru Satoh [Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (2014), Samurai Marathon (2019)]), Ukon’s younger brother, works at a trading company, fully bound by the rules of the game called society. While he worries about his older brother, he also harbours a wish to escape the limitations his work impose on him.
One night, a crying Ushiyama urges Ukon to come to his place, because he found a death body. Upon inspecting the body, Ukon quickly realize it is not a human being, but a still functional robot. When Sakon sees the robot, he can already imagine to satisfy his desire to escape the chains of society.
Even though Hard-Core has but one main narrative thread, a narrative thread concerning friendship and bonding, these main narrative thread is seemingly supported with smaller intermingling episodic narratives (e.g. the investigation of Silvia, Ushiyama’s virginity, and Sakon’s (financial) interest in the robot, Ukon’s falling in love). While these episodic escapades could have been instrumental in supporting the narrative’s main theme, the structure of the narrative – a structure where the various parts only hang loosely together – lacks the tightness and focus to do so.
Hard-Core might start with an unlikely bonding and end by underlining the importance of friendship, the middle part of the narrative, by lacking a well-structured integration of the various episodic sides, fails to keep its focus on its main theme. As such, we, as spectator, are left unable to sensibly feel the importance of friendship and of compassion as evoked by the narrative’s conclusion. One could even argue that the narrative’s structure fails to be not composed in function of the narrative’s main theme.
The bonding of Ukon, Ushiyama, and Robo-o happens – and this is not un-important for the narrative’s unfolding – on a backdrop of a societal field marked by loose sexuality, i.e. prostitution and adultery. Within the narrative’s unfolding, there is a subtle but ever present tension between brotherhood and the possible disruptive nature of female sexuality. This tension is only fully realized in the narrative at the moment that Ukon falls in love with his boss’ daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi [At the Terrace (2016)]), a woman who feeds herself with sexuality. While this liaison is dangerous, Ukon sees no reason to decline entering the ever horny world of Taeko. Under Sakon’s influence, Ukon also starts to question if he should remain loyal to Ginjiro Kinjo’s cause or if he should further his own position and his friend’s position within society (Narra-note 1). While one might think that Ukon’s double conflict opens the field where the narrative can find its conclusion, might be very surprised by the various turns the narrative takes. While we’re not against any narrative twists, it is difficult, due to the narrative’s structure, to care about the twists Hard-Core presents.
While one can say that Ukon does not get along with people, it would be more correct to say that, for him, various speech-acts remain marked by suspicion. As the intention of the Other is ever able to be marked by suspicion, his response is either avoiding speech-interactions or violently breaking the speech-interaction (Narra-note 2).
One exception to Ukon’s avoidance of social interaction, concerns his interactions with the socially awkward Ushiyama (Narra-note 3). The opening for their bond starts when Ukon hits the miner who was badmouthing Ushiyama. In this case, it is not suspicion that marks the speech-act, but a condemnation of the other. The common denominator between this fight and the earlier bar-fight – the fight that opens the narrative (see also Narra-note 1), is the presence of an enjoyment as intertwined with the intention/direction of the speech-act.
The reason why Ukon is able to form a bond with Ushiyama lies in the fact that Ushiyama rarely speaks. Ukon, as a matter of fact, needs to interpreted Ushiyama’s gestures and facial expressions – both aspects grasped within the field of language, and said interpretation short-circuits any mal-intentioned enjoyment as guiding speech. While one can explain the reason of befriending Robo-o in the same way – by underlining his lack of speech and the lack of mal-intentioned enjoyment, one should not fail to see that the robot is as much an outsider as Ukon and Ushiyama.
The cinematography of Hard-Core consists of a blend between fixity and subtle fluid movement. While moving shots – be it spatially moving or moving in a following way – are used as such, fixity and movement are often mixed within one shot. The cinematography might not offer anything new or fresh, the cinematography supports the narrative in a fitting manner.
Despite the fact that some musical pieces aim to infuse lightheartedness into the narrative’s unfolding, a certain seriousness remains lingering throughout the narrative. Even though we do not feel that the light-hearted musical pieces clash with the more serious content of the narrative, these musical pieces do fail to lighten the heavy seriousness that surrounds Ukon (Music-note 1).
The lingering seriousness also explains why this so-called comedy remains rather a-comical. YosiYosi Arakawa’s weird facial expression might be funny on paper, when Arakawa uses these fine expressions within the narrative space these expressions only succeed to underline his weirdness, his somewhat endearing social awkwardness. This lingering seriousness is furthermore supported by the somewhat depressing atmosphere that marks the narrative space. Despite this intentional dreariness, the narrative does include some nice colour-compositions.
Even though the greater part of Hard-Core can be called a-comical, there are nevertheless various light-hearted situations (e.g. the hooker counting Ushiyama’s 20,000 yen, Ukon talking English to the robot, the robot’s introduction to and insertion in the gold-mining, …) present in the narrative. As one can assume, the presence of funny moments only rises temporarily after the robot enters the narrative frame. While this funniness, this funniness born from the interactions with the robot, does not fail to produce laughs, the silly nature of this comedy problematizes the lingering seriousness in the narrative. The silliness is, in other words, not compatible with the seriousness of the narrative.
Hard-Core is a cinematographical product with an identity crisis. Does it want to be a silly comedy or a more serious tale about friendship? Besides the fact that the narrative cannot choose its identity, it also fails to structure the narrative’s unfolding in light of the narrative’s theme. As such, the narrative’s unfolding cannot bring the spectator to the point that he/she can feel the importance of the framed friendship. Hard-Core reveals, in a painful way, that something that works well in manga does not always translates in an equal pleasant fashion on the silver screen.
Narra-note 1: While Ukon opts for his own individualistic cause, the betrayal leaves its subjective marks.
Narra-note 2: When Ukon Gondo gives a head-but in the bar, one should not fail to see that he is fixated on the intention of his victim – the unsaid intention to pick up the girl.
Narra-note 3: Ushiyama’s symptom of muteness is related to a nervous breakdown he had ten years ago. This nervous breakdown was caused by Ushiyama’s inability to cope with the pressures from his family and his elite high school.
Music-note 1: As the narrative progresses, these lighthearted musical pieces disappear.