A jarring, aggressive portrayal of Korean culture inside Japan, Hard Romaticker is sort of a modern young look at the yakuza film cross pollinated with the British bad boy/gangster movie, transposed to a fresh setting by director Gu Su-yeon (The Yakiniku Movie: Bulgogi). In fact this was adapted from Su-yeon's his own 2001 novel, which was inspired more or less by his own life. You could easily pinpoint its influences ranging from A Clockwork Orange (which gets a prominent nod on the packaging) to more recent efforts from the likes of Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle, but the end result is still something unique and absolutely never dull.
The epicenter of all this mayhem is Gu (Matsuda), a bleach-blond, Korean-descended Japanese thug in Shimonoseki who unfairly gets fingered for the shooting death of the grandmother of a powerful gangster (Endo). The crime was actually committed (accidentally) by Gu's cohorts (Nagayama and Emoto), but that's just the impetus that leads from one scenario to another involving street fights, a lovestruck teenager (Tomoda), a gig at a nightclub, a seasoned cop (Watabe) prying into Gu's criminal neighborhood, and, of course, more gangsters and double crosses.
It seems odd to call a Japanese crime movie picaresque (especially when it involves a young man essentially feeling his life getting dragged down into the toilet), but that's almost how this one feels as its antihero stumbles through a wide variety of characters and darkly funny and/or shocking situations, in which even a sexual assault and a nasty alley beating are handled in a weirdly matter-of-fact fashion. (That said, there's a very gory crash scene whose aftermath will have many viewers doing a double take.) Matsuda does a fine job as the main identification figure and the only real constant in the film, a jazzy string of crime film riffs in which men are basically ambitious backstabbers and women get treated as little more than property. The jazz-laced score is also a standout, evoking the classic Japanese yakuza films of the 1960s and '70s; fittingly this was produced by Japanese studio Toei, whose past classics include the Battles without Honor and Humanity and Female Convict Scorpion series. All told it's a cool, swift, wildly entertaining film worth seeking out for aficionados of Japanese crime cinema.
For its American home video debut, Hard Romaticker marks another unexpected and welcome detour for Artsploitation, a fresh label whose earlier titles include Gandu and Lapland Odyssey. This is nothing particularly like those other films in any way, keeping with the company's mission statement to go for unflinching and unique world cinematic fare with each title. The transfer is fine with apparently accurate 1.85:1 framing; it's not really the most vivid film around given the emphasis on street grime and earthy colors, but black levels seem to be solid and properly adjusted (a failing for many Japanese-sourced transfers carried over to the U.S.). The optional English subtitles appear to be accurate and well written, while the Japanese 5.1 mix isn't too showy but offers a satisfying experience as well. You also get the trailer for this film and three other Artsploitation titles, Clip, Combat Girls, and Gandu.