Nobuhiro Yamashita isn't my favorite director, nor am I a huge fan of dramas mixed with comedy. That doesn't mean I ignore them altogether, but chances are that I'll skip them if nothing else draws my attention to them. I don't even remember what made me decide to give Hard-Core [Hâdo Koa] a go, but I'm very glad I did because Yamashita's latest isn't your run-of-the-mill dramedy. I'm sure this is a film that won't be to everyone's taste, it took me a while to get any kind of grip on it, but in the end I did find it to be a delightful experience that is quite hard to compare to anything I've seen so far.
Yamashita (age 43) is still quite young for a director, especially one with 20+ directing credits to his name. He started directing at the age of 23 and has been building a steady career ever since. He even garnered some international recognition with Linda Linda Linda (not a fan myself), but that didn't turn out to be very sustainable. His work is quite hard to come by outside of Japan and the few films I did manage to see were decent enough, but nothing too spectacular. So over time my interest in his work slowly faded. It's safe to say that Hard-Core rekindled that.
Hard-Core starts off as a slightly off-kilter social drama. A tale about two social rejects who have trouble keeping their lives on the rails. Ukon is an unemployed deadbeat who has a very mean temper, Ushiyama a mentally challenged manchild who appears completely disconnected from reality. The two work for a left-wing extremist group as literal gold-diggers, slaving away in a mine hoping to hit a buried treasure. It keeps them off the streets and earns them a small but welcome paycheck. It's all quite grim, with just a smidgen of comedy to lighten the mood.
All of that changes when Ushiyama makes a strange discovery in the abandoned factory where they live. He finds a dead body, which on closer inspection turns out to be a robot. The thing looks like it was teleported right out of the 50s, but it's surprisingly capable and helpful, walking around as if it was a real human being. It also turns out to be a great digger, so the two of them dress it up, present it to the outside world as their dysfunctional cosplayer friend and put it to work in the mine. As you probably figured out by now, things take a rather weird and absurd turn from this point on.
Visually the film seems to be drawing mostly from its dramatic angle, with neat but traditional camera work and a somewhat muted color palette. There are times when Yamashita abruptly breaks out of that mold, going for more comical and constructed shots, but the best moments are no doubt when he combines both aspects. There are several ludicrous moments, shot through the lens of a social drama, that are simply hilarious. The sets look pleasantly rich and detailed too, while the CG smartly contributes to the comedy (i.e. no need for modern/flashy effects). All in all, Hard-Core is a very pleasant-looking film.
The soundtrack on the other hand is a pretty inconspicuous affair. Basic film music and some pop/rock make up most of the soundtrack, which pushes it well into the background. I do have to say that I didn't really miss it during the film, but afterwards I had trouble remembering anything at all about the music, which is never a great sign. The peculiar mix of drama and comedy doesn't really call for a dominant score, but no doubt it could've pushed the film a bit further towards my absolute favorites. So even though I have nothing really negative to say, I feel it's still somewhat of a missed opportunity.
Luckily Yamashita found himself a perfect pair of actors to give shape to his principal duo. Takayuki Yamada is very convincing as the deadbeat Ukon, while Yoshiyoshi Arakawa makes an ideal Ushiyama. Even though his part mostly consist of confused or apathetic facial expressions, his body language is spot on. The rest of the cast is solid too, with good performances of Takeru Satoh and Kei Ishibashi in somewhat substantial secondary parts, but in the end the weight really lies on Yamada and Arakawa's shoulders, and they seem to carry it with ease.
About half an hour in, the tone of the film takes a big turn, as more and more absurd elements start to find their way into the film. It's not a smooth transition, nor is the resulting tone very consistent. Instead, the film starts alternating between drama and absurd comedy on a more regular basis. This may be in part due to its manga roots (which I haven't read myself), even so it's Yamashita's way of adapting this story that makes it stand out. The direction of the film becomes virtually impossible to predict, which is something I've come to appreciate a lot over time, as is the lack of clear resolution at the end of the film.
Yamashita's Hard-Core is a strange beast. It's a combination of genres and styles that don't really go that well together, but somehow Yamashita found a way to create something extremely appealing from them. It's definitely not a film for everyone, you need to be able to stomach the mix of social drama and daft, absurd comedy, but the flawless execution, solid performances and surprising twists and turns are a sight to behold. Availability is the film's biggest problem for now, so if you get the chance be sure to give this unique film the benefit of the doubt.