ハード・コア 「Ha-do Koa」
Release Date: November 23rd, 2018
Duration: 124 mins.
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Writer: Kosuke Mukai (Screenplay), Marley Carib Takashi Imashiro (Original Manga),
Starring: Takayuki Yamada, Takeru Satoh, YosiYosi Arakawa, Kei Ishibashi, Suon Kan, Takako Matsu, Kisetsu Fujiwara,
Nobuhiro Yamashita is a director who has a particular forte for downbeat stories, whether they are slacker comedies or dramas, most of which contain misanthropic and misaligned characters who make for uncomfortable yet interesting leads (think The Drudgery Train). Here, he adapts an obscure manga from the early 90s by writer Marley Carib and illustrator Takashi Imashiro where the characters and the story are sometimes bizarre, sometimes sorrowful but secretly gentle, all of which plays out in a slow and uneven story.
The story takes place in Gunma Prefecture. Deep in the hills and mountains lies a legendary hoard of gold that was once owned by the Shogun. Searching for it is a pure-hearted man by the name of Ukon Gondo (Takayuki Yamada) whose strict moral code makes it difficult to communicate with people he feels are immoral so he follows the orders of a right-wing cult led by an elderly ultra-nationalist named Kaneshiro (Takuzo Kubikukuri) and his loyal henchman, Mizunuma (Suon Kan), both of whom are determined to restore honour to Japanese youth. In truth the only one who truly soothes Ukon’s mind is another man who joins him in his gold excavations, Ushiyama (YosiYosi Arakawa), a strange individual who also finds it hard to socialise but has the desire to have sex.
This duo get into misadventures and painful encounters in the first half of the film and they have no purpose other than to show how isolated and lonely the duo are as their weird personalities make it hard for them to fit in and affecting acting makes these characters totally sympathetic.
Takayuko Yamada (13 Assassins) portrays Ukon perfectly, his handsome looks caught almost in a permafrown as he is too stern and moralistic, his deep voice raised during bouts of anger directed at anyone who is rude and exploitative of other but there are moments of uncertainty when his expression is filled with confusion as he struggles to find the right way to handle situations. YosiYosi Arakawa (Fine, Totally Fine) is heartbreaking and hilarious as Ushiyama, portraying a man who seems to have had a total breakdown at some point as his eyes are always wide and his mouth downcast in sadness or forming a giant “oh” of surprise. Arakawa’s movements and speech are skittish and his casting is perfect as he totally fits his character’s name – “ushi” for cow to describe his bovine face and “yama” for mountain because he’s as big as one. The big guy definitely relies on Ukon for protection and they are a little like the duo in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
Ushiyama cannot get laid for love nor money and Ukon struggles to fit into a society he is disappointed by. However, one day, they are soon to be joined by a third teammate, a robot they discover at an abandoned factory that Ushiyama lives in. He is like a walking washing machine but has hidden super powers. They christen him Robo-o and he proves to be the perfect addition to the gang as he protects them from yakuza, he can fly, and he can search for gold. Once their team is complete, they resolve to change their lives and the plot kicks into gear with the introduction of Ukon’s handsome brother, Sakon (a super slick and hard-nosed portrayal by Takeru Sato – Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno). He works for a trading company and is far more cynical than his older brother so he spies a way to exploit the robot for money by finding the gold and selling it to the Chinese mafia. This initiates a series of crises for Ukon as he breaks his moral code by lying to his boss over the gold and begins to betray everything and everyone he trusts, however, life is hard and he will find the betrayals go two ways…
This is the story of two men destroyed by society, Ushiyama having a tragic backstory that justifies why he is now afraid of everything, and Ukon who is disaffected by modern-day Japan because he wants to live a pure life with no wrong. The two find themselves buffeted by the corruption that surrounds them in sex, work, and politics whilst also trying to control and sate their own desires and being caught in an uncomfortable compromise.
It paints a sad picture of compromise and moral decay when viewed from their perspective although it opens the way for a lot of deadpan humour as they let loose bizarre animal-like passions when allowed to (Disco Time!), misinterpret social interactions, intimidate normal people and find themselves outfoxed and are put in embarrassing situations where they struggle to voice what they want and get exploited or hurt. More comedy is heaped on by seeing Robo-o being passed off as human as he imitates dances and works at the coalmine and roams around the streets in daytime drawing all sorts of comedic reactions. Robo-o also shows lots of empathy for his two new friends and the way he protects them and they adopt him is really charming.
Actually, seeing them play out their friendship and dysfunctions on screen is pretty affecting and very dark so the amount of entertainment, in the standard sense, is limited, but it does build up to a nice shock pay off full of melancholy at the end that will really rock hearts in the audience. The shock is soothed by a gorgeous song, Gentle Night by Ovall, during the end credits which acts as a salve to the hearts of audience members who may be hurt and let them know, life is tough but keep going.