Live-action manga adaptations – from weepy dramas about teenage love to goofy comedies set in fantasy worlds – usually reflect real life only at its extremes, whether it’s the melodramatic or the idiotic.
Then there is Hard-Core Heisei Hell’s Bros., a cult manga about two losers – one with an out-of-control temper, the other intellectually challenged – who become inseparable pals in bubble-era Japan. Think of them as a Japanese version of George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella Of Mice and Men.
Written by Marley Caribu and illustrated by Imashiro Takashi, Hard-Core ran in Grand Champion magazine from 1991 to 1993 and was published in four paperback volumes. Now it’s a film directed by Yamashita Nobuhiro and starring Yamada Takayuki, a Hard-Core fan who first brought the manga to Yamashita’s attention.
Yamashita has made a specialty of black comedies about men on society’s margins, beginning with his 1999 debut Hazy Life. Yamada has appeared in everything from commercial blockbusters to the Ushijima the Loan Shark film and TV series, playing the ice-cool hero. Yamada implicitly understands Yamashita’s offbeat humor, as evidenced by The Cannes Film Festival of Takayuki Yamada, a tongue-in-cheek TV mini-series he and the director made last year about wangling an invitation to the titular film event.
Their take on the manga is faithful to its contrary spirit, if not, thankfully, to its shambling narrative structure. The film’s story sounds like a wild-and-crazy grab-bag in which black comedy meets sci-fi meets action-adventure. But Yamashita’s default setting is wry detachment, not goofball gags. Also, as odd as they may be, his two main protagonists have deep-rooted traumas that make them more humanly three-dimensional – and the film more than a campy farrago.
Yamada plays Gondo Ukon, a hard-headed, pure-spirited type prone to violent explosions. His salaryman brother, Sakon (Satoh Takeru), is constantly getting him out of scrapes, more with disgust than compassion.
Ukon’s only friend is Ushiyama (Arakawa Yoshiyoshi), a hulking homeless guy who lives in an abandoned factory and communicates mostly by grunts, though he routinely beats Ukon at shogi. Once a week, Ukon and Ushiyama journey to an abandoned mine in Gunma Prefecture where they labor under the supervision of an eccentric elderly rightist, Kaneshiro (the recently deceased actor and performance artist Kubikukuri Takuzo) and his gruff foreman, Mizunuma (Kan Suon).
Kaneshiro has the crazy idea that the mine contains a trove of long-buried gold, but he pays real wages. Also, Ukon trusts and reveres him, somewhat like a World War II soldier who has volunteered to fight and die for the Emperor.
Then Ushiyama discovers a retro-looking robot in the factory and makes it his friend. Dubbed “Robo,” this mechanical man can walk, though not talk, and seems to have a will of its own. Dressed in cast-off clothes, it accompanies Ukon and Ushiyama to town and even saves them from angry gangsters. When Sakon finds out about Robo he has the bright idea of using him to find the gold, assuming it exists.
There is more to the story, including the seduction of Ukon by Mizunuma’s daughter Taeko (Ishibashi Kei) and, typically for a manga adaptation, HARD-CORE sags under the weight of its plot complications. But Robo, after fading into the background for a long stretch, comes flying to the rescue, sending the film into a stranger, more wonderful dimension.
Steinbeck can’t beat that.