Hard-Core (2018) by Nobuhiro Yamashita

Two men working a meaningless job find a high-tech AI robot in this existential comedy-drama. Unlike his younger brother Sakon (Takeru Sato) who is a high-flying professional, Ukon (Takayuki Yamada) is stuck in a rut. Along with his simple-minded friend Ushiyama (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa), he finds work with an elderly man who is part of some right-wing political group. This man and his assistant Mizunami (Suon Kan) have the two digging in a tunnel for gold that may or may not exist. One night Ushiyama finds a robot under the abandoned factory where he is sleeping that may provide a solution to their current troubles, but at the same time brings difficulties of its own.

Directed by Nobuhiro Yamashita, with a screenplay by Kosuke Mukai, this manga adaptation is a film that includes many disparate elements that never quite come together in a satisfactory way. The lowbrow comedy, such as Ukon’s attempts to help the naïve Ushiyama lose his virginity; or their attempts to hide the robot from prying eyes are amusing; but the film also seems to be striving to be more than a simple knockabout comedy, undermining the potential for more serious discussions with the more outrageous moments. Ukon and Ushiyama’s relationship is touching, being almost surrogate siblings to one another. Takayuki Yamada and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa are perfectly cast as this odd couple, Yamada as a dissatisfied individual who is striving to find some purpose in life, and Arakawa as the childlike, semi-mute, vulnerable Ushiyama. The film begins to find its feet after the discovery of the robot, giving the characters a unique situation to deal with, but at the same time it is unclear what the science-fiction element adds to the narrative.

“Hard-Core” is at its best when focussed on the relationship between the two protagonists, and the comparisons between them and their robotic companion. There is a lingering sense of existential angst in the film, with the shot of a dead cicada bringing home this idea that life is fragile and transient. There is also a strong desire in the character of Ukon to find meaning in his life. At the beginning of the film we see he is a man who is disgusted by humanity, lashing out at people enjoying themselves while he drinks himself into a stupor. Both Ushiyama and the robot, in contrast, are blissfully ignorant of the world around them, rarely troubled by concerns beyond the here and now. As Ukon’s brother explains to him, the robot has no will or desires, it does what it does because it is told to. It is the tragedy of humans that they are searching for meaning in a meaningless world. In the same way that they are digging for gold and Mizunuma’s daughter Taeko (Kei Ishibashi) is searching for physical pleasure, to the exclusion of all else. “Hard-Core” is an unusual film because it attempts to juggle so many genres, action, romance, existential drama, comedy, and science-fiction, and often seems to drift aimlessly from one to the other. Much like the journey of the protagonist, it is often hard to discern a deeper meaning amidst the madness.

The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi (1979) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Famous detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Ikko Furuya) finds himself entangled in a mysterious case involving the missing head of a statue. A group of roller-skating, clown-costumed, art thieves are causing havoc with a spate of robberies. When they accost Kindaichi Kosuke and ask him to return to his only unsolved case, involving famous artist Haida, he sees the opportunity to finally answer that outstanding mystery. Along with officer Todoroki (Kunie Tanaka) and the leader of the theives Maria (Miyuki Matsuda), Kindaichi encounters a series of comedic situations in search of the culprits.

Based (very loosely) on the works of popular crime author Seishi Yokomizo, “The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi” is part detective story, part slapstick comedy, and part self-referential, fourth-wall breaking satire. The film credits Yokomizo’s work as its basis, with a screenplay by Koichi Saito and Akira Nakano, but it is director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s style that colours every moment of this lively crime caper. The Kindaichi of the film is a caricaturish figure playing up to his reputation as a dishevelled detective, with exaggerated tics such as scratching his head and his unkempt style marking him out as a figure of fun. The film rarely takes itself seriously, with numerous wordplay gags, pratfalls, animated moments, inexplicable appearances of Superman, and surrealist comedy representative of the counter-cultural trend tearing down revered figures. There are references to various Kindaichi cases from the books, a fun in-joke for those familiar with Yokomizo’s work. If you are a fan of the books however, this film will probably not be for you, as it seems to almost mock the very notion of the character. Obayashi brings the character of Kindaichi to the contemporary era of discotheques and rollerskating youths; and creates a bizarre confusion of non-sequitur humour and punchlines without set-ups. Later in the film there is even a Seishi Yokomizo cameo as his royalties for the Kindaichi stories are delivered, further muddying the waters about what is going on.

“The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi” is either an incomprehensible mess, a kaleidoscopic comic masterpiece, or a multi-layered self-reflective work that considers Kosuke Kindaichi as a fictional character as well as the protagonist of this story; and that comments on the police force and its depiction in media. Obayashi does not constrain himself to conventional storytelling, which can be both a good and a bad thing, allowing for an artistic and unique style that is able to express more than a straightforward story would; but also means throwing in several ill-fitting elements, the murder and mayhem struggling to find a tonal balance. The film is likely to have a mixed response, the audience’s enjoyment based on the extent to which they are willing to leave pre-conceptions and expectation behind and give in to the bohemian daring of Obayashi’s filmmaking.

Yakuza Apocalypse (2015) by Takashi Miike

Yakuza, vampires and martial arts collide in this wacky action comedy from Takeshi Miike. Kageyama (Hayato Ichihara) is a young gang member whose sensitive skin and inability to get a tattoo sets him apart from his fellow mobsters. He is however fiercely loyal to the boss (played by Lily Franky). When the boss, who happens to be a vampire, is killed, he manages to confer his powers on Kageyama with his dying breath. Kageyama then sets out to get revenge on the group who killed him, including traitor Aratetsu (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), mysterious English-speaking vampire hunter (Ryushin Tei), a martial artist (Yayan Ruhian), and a kappa (a mythical water creature). Kageyama is aided by Hogan (Denden), a bartender who knows the vampire secret, and a swelling army of new bloodsucking demons created by Kageyama. He also hopes to protect a young woman named Kyoko (Riko Narumi) who he has feelings for.

“Yakuza Apocalypse”, directed by Takashi Miike from a screenplay by Yoshitaka Yamaguchi, is a bizarre action-comedy that attempts to juggle several distinct elements. Whether you are a fan of martial arts films, violent exploitation cinema, surrealist humour, or modern takes on the vampire mythos, there is something for you to enjoy here, though the plot and editing can be a disjointed at times. It seems to jump from scene to scene in a frenetic way, often failing to set up key emotional threads such as Kageyama and Kyoko’s relationship, or background on who characters are or their motivations. For the most part you can ignore this, and simply enjoy the excellent direction, fight choreography and blend of childish comedy and gory action. However, the discrepancy in tone does a disservice to some elements that could have worked better either as a more straightforward fantasy yakuza film or out-and-out comedy. It often comes across as a collection of inventively violent moments, such as a man having his head twisted off, or inexplicable characters such as a frog-costumed pugilist (Masanori Mimoto) and a disturbing kappa, that seem to be from completely separate films.

The film’s comparison of vampires and yakuza, both bloodsucking parasites leeching off hard-working citizens is entertaining and the splicing of the two genres works well, allowing for the unholy union of these gruesome mythologies that have built up both around gangsters and nosferatu. When it works the satire is excellent, but all too often it misses the mark by attempting to balance the  relationship between Kageyama and Kyoko, or even Kageyama and the boss, with the absurdist metaphor of the main plot. While there are a lot of enjoyable moments, over the top comedy and brutal, rollicking action sequences, “Yakuza Apocalypse” seems wayward and unfocussed, with an interesting satire buried under an abundance of eccentric characters and non sequitur.

A.I. Love You (2016) by Shogo Miyaki

Haruko Hoshino (Aoi Morikawa) is works as a kitchen porter while dreaming of opening her own patisserie someday. Disillusioned by a series of job interview rejections she finds comfort in an unusual source: a mysterious mail advertising a free A.I. phone application that you can speak with. She downloads it and names it “Love” (‘Ai’ in Japanese). Love (Takumi Saito) offers her support and words of wisdom, suggesting that she try to make some recipes and have her boss (Akira Ishida) taste them. Love also suggests that she should pursue a romantic interest in the shape of co-worker and talented chef Naoto (Shuhei Uesugi). As Love offers her advice and Haruko grows in confidence, their relationship begins to develop into something more than one of convenience.

Based on the manga by Ken Akamatsu, “A.I. Love You”a simplistic romantic tale with a technological twist. The A.I. element is a modern take on the traditional narrative of a human friend with burgeoning feelings for Haruko. Aoi Morikawa is charismatic and likeable in the lead role, often performing a one-woman show to the camera as she speaks with the voice of Love (Takumi Saito). Her problems are far from insurmountable: she is already a competent pastry chef and the improvement she needs to gain her bosses approval and follow her dreams are almost imperceptible to the viewer. Similarly, her romantic troubles are overcome fairly easily. The film is short and moves along quickly, leaving little time for character development, with the supporting cast mostly filling stereotypical roles. Shuhei Uesugi as the handsome love interest; Anne Nakamura as Haruko’s friendly co-worker Kyoko, and Akira Ishida as her irrationaly irritable boss.

Despite a lack of originality or depth the film will appeal to fans of romantic dramas. Much like a pastry it is light, fluffy fun, saccharine sweet and visually appealing. Later in the film there is a hint at darker themes, with the deletion of Love suggesting a similarity with human death, and despite a lack of build up it does manage to be emotionally engaging. However, the film largely sticks to the well-trodden path of romantic comedy dramas, with an uplifting message about trying hard to achieve your dreams. An enjoyable performance from Aoi Morikawa makes it worth a watch.

Bloody Chainsaw Girl (2016) by Hiroki Yamaguchi

Rio Uchida stars as a chainsaw-wielding teenage delinquent in this slice of silly splatter comedy. Giko Nokomura (Uchida) is a rebellious high-schooler, who inexplicably totes around a chainsaw (telling her teachers it’s due to her family’s construction business). On her way to school to take a make-up test she is waylaid by a group of classmates who have been transformed into cyborgs by Nero Aoi (Mari Yamachi), a troubled fellow student. Amongst them is Sayuri Bakutani (Seira Sato), whose post-human upgrades include the ability to fire rockets from her crotch. As well as these cyborg students, Giko also has to deal with members of the ninja club, led by Hanzo (Yuki Tamaki), a transgender student whose ninja skills are also bolstered by Nero’s experimental cyborgization.

“Bloody Chainsaw Girl” is a tongue-in-cheek splatter comedy, fully aware of its own ridiculousness. Director Hiroki Yamaguchi includes everything that you might expect from the genre: low budget special effects, unnecessary upskirt angles and unexpected nudity, hyper-energetic performances, gory dismemberments, and plot-holes galore. The film’s humour does provide a few puerile laughs and gets by on the sheer audacity of the film-maker’s intentions. Much of what happens seems like an attempt to test out various special-effects, utilising CG and practical effects, with the flimsiest of plots stringing these things together. The film is based on the manga by Rei Mikamoto, and the direction shows this influence in its unrestrained use of dutch-angles and frantic camerawork, as well as the music video-like credits sequence that is straight out of an anime. The score by Masahiko Horikura is emotional and solid. As with the direction, it shows a competence that sometimes seems wasted on this particular story. The film makes great use of its locations. Although the abandoned school and rooftop are staples of the low-budget genre, the underground industrial facility makes a superb villain’s lair.

The cast do a great job with their characters, treating them with largely undeserved reverence. Uchida’s Giko is a no-nonsense, unwilling heroine, more concerned with the results of her test than the bizarre cyborg invasion happening around her; while Mari Yamachi goes all-out super-villain with her over-the-top performances as Nero. At around 80-minutes, the film gets straight into the action and is a clear run to the final showdown. An entertaining splatter film that leans into its silliness. There is a message here, about how loners can choose between two paths, of revenge or acceptance of who they are, as well as references to sexism and bullying; but to be honest the plot and themes are largely iirrelevant. Simply switch off your brain and enjoy the gory spectacle of a high-school girl tearing through cyborgs with a chainsaw.