Hard-Core isn’t the sort of movie to make a big splash in North America. It’s a low-budget manga adaptation with an unhurried plot progression and the sort of brazen overall weirdness that means when the characters joined by a giant autonomous robot partway through, it doesn’t actually affect the plot all that much. After all, the robot is an extremely efficient miner, so it can just don a disguise and join protagonist Ukon and his best friend Ushiyama in helping an outspoken rightist cult leader dig for the treasure horde of a long-dead shogun. Well, a “cult” of two, anyway—four if you count Ukon and Ushiyama. But then, no one seems all that certain there’s gold down there anyway.
These are angry young men, alienated and romantically bereft. Ukon is a drunk who we first meet at the bar, head-butting a drunken student who has the temerity to flirt with a young woman. The round-faced Ushiyama grunts and laughs more than he speaks, and makes Ukon seem like a bit of a George Milton. Outside the mine and the bar, Ukon spends a lot of time trying to get Ushiyama laid, and his methods do not produce good results. Another barrier for North America, then: this is a movie sympathetic to the types of men who can be dangerous, the types of men that others have good reason to fear.
That’s not to say Hard-Core is tone-deaf. It’s a movie populated by oddballs that slowly and carefully reveals the trauma undergirding the comedy. It’s not a movie about good people, exactly, but it’s a movie about consistent ones. You believe in the internal truth of these characters even when they’re clubbing with the giant robot (who they give the unsurprisingly uninspired nickname Robo-o), and even once somebody winds up dead and stuffed into a suitcase. The whole thing builds to an ending that does right by its lead characters and the people that have to share a world with them.
Before it gets there, though, it’s two hours of meandering deadpan. Hard-Core is, in essence, a hangout movie, and you’ll need at least a minimal appreciation of Ukon and Ushiyama to enjoy the hangout. Robo-o is so perfectly designed that it might sell you on its own—its chunky, metallic, tokusatsu-throwback body and hilariously haphazard face are so incongruous in the otherwise straightforward world of the film that it’s worth a laugh in almost every shot. In the end, the film is warm-hearted and often very, very funny. If these people don’t put you off entirely, they just might win you over.