Nobuhiro Yamashita takes on artful drama with a sci-fi twist in Hard-Core, based on Takashi Imashiro’s 1993 manga, and marking Yamashita’s own debut foray into sci-fi. It’s pretty much a slow-burn process to work through but the characters in their iteration here are made interesting enough that you’re compelled for the most part to stick with it to the end.
We meet our lead character in Ukon (Takayuki Yamada), a scruffy, down-and-out barfly whose wayward path eventually lands him employment with an aging nationalist named Kaneshiro (Takuzo Kibukukuri), who wants to re-educate today’s youth. He finds friendship in Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), a kindhearted mute, and the two are then-led to a cave in the Gunma Prefecture where they’re commissioned to dig for Shogun’s buried gold.
The two share a room together near an abandoned factory whereupon during one evening, Ushiyama discovers what he thinks at first is a corpse. He summons Ukon and the two confront the subject at hand which turns out to be a full-sized rusty robot, and little do they know, their latest discovery is a lot more than meets the eye.
Desperate to maintain their unearthed secret in the course of their coexistence, they rename him “Robo-o”, a cosplayer whose quiet demeanor stems from merely being a “hard-boiled” type of guy. With a little help from Ukon’s corporate ladder-climbing tech-savvy younger brother, Sakon, it turns out “Robo-o” also happens to be pretty good at digging – among other things.
The story told in Hard-Core eventually take a turn for the peculiar when sparks fly after dining at the home of his boss, Mr. Mizunuma (Suon Kan), when Ukon meets his daughter, a spinster playgirl named Taeko, with whom he slowly develops feelings for. Further complicating matters is when during the process of enacting a plan to get rich quick and get out for good, tragedy strikes, and the very crux of Ukon’s loyalty towards Kaneshiro’s cause is questioned.
Yamashita brings color and life to the atmospheric hardship and stoicism our characters deal with in Hard-Core. There’s quite a handful of delightful surprises along the way, which speaks heavily toward my own thoughts when I first went blindly into the trailer a few weeks ago and expecting to sample something at least close to a drama about life-learning, only to see that somehow a clunky old robot fits into all this.
I was reminded of my own mirthful enjoyment in anime, particularly studio 8-bit’s How To Keep A Mummy, although Yamashita’s treatment bares that same exuberance without the more cute-and-cuddly aspects; Seeing “Robo-o” try to matriculate into society under the guise of a burly cosplayer gets a few chuckles on top of a lot of the odd ball humor we see from some of Ukon and Ushiyama.
Moreover, remarkably, the sight of seeing “Robo-o” fly off into the night carrying his human cohorts away from trouble isn’t at all disturbing from the rest of the film. These moments are few and far-between with a robot whose looks and appearance bode enough as makeshift that it looks like someone’s wearing a costume, and so it’s not like any part of the story that involves learning more about “Robo-o” and its origins stretches beyond our key cast.
Yamashita does manage to push the envelope on matters of sex and sexuality here, and it definitely provides several major laughs, including at least one moment where Ukon initially rejects Taeko’s advances. What happens next is an E.T. moment not too suitable for children depite Futa Takagi’s merciful cinematography.
Yamada’s iteration of Ukon is a certifiable lynchpin of the drama that drives the film forward. He’s not perfect, but precariously holds true to an ideology he hopes will keep him on the straight-and-narrow path between right and wrong, even if that means going to bat for Ushiyama so he can get laid, or standing up to uncouth types who speak out of turn.
It’s also the bigger driving forces of the drama goes to Ukon’s weary relationship with Sakon, who reluctantly respects his brother’s wishes about “Robo-o”‘s anonymity, when they share an emotional breakthrough regarding Ukon’s priorities in life. He wants to somehow, as Sakon puts it, change the world, but he doesn’t know how or where to start without believing he at least has a North Star to follow with Kaneshiro’s treasure hunt and some semblance of human companionship with Taeko.
Going out with a bang and followed by a sanguine surprise ending with a heartfelt coda, Yamashita’s Hard-Core is a delightful ode to the broken-hearted and ever-yearning.