Content Warning: Domestic abuse, graphic violence, graphic sex
Every live-action adaptation is, to some extent, an example of Theseus' ship: How much of the original can be replaced and it still be the thing itself? In Ride or Die we are allowed to have it both ways. Directed by Ryūichi Hiroki (Marmalade Boy), a director acclaimed for his depictions of violence and sexuality in his movies, Ride or Die is not the same as the manga, which allows us to consider it as a wholly separate entity without conflict. "Moving, brutal, sublimely gorgeous and profoundly disturbing." was what I wrote about Gunjō back in 2010, on my blog Okazu. I think it's fair to say the same about Ride or Die.
The movie begins with an act of graphic violence. A bloody murder is committed in the middle of an explicit sex scene. The story backs into itself from there, but it spends a good half of its run time reminding us of that casual brutality, followed by more graphic brutality, as Rei learns of the abuse Nanae has suffered from her husband and father. This upfront violence leaves a lingering discomfort that will take the entire story to address. I begin with this not to just warn people away from the movie, if this is not their cup of tea, but because in these scenes of explicit violence, it comes very close to the original manga. I want to emphasize the graphic quality of these scenes – they are not easy to watch, nor are they meant to be. Nakamura-sensei is an advocate against domestic violence and child abuse and has written a manga touching specifically on those topics, Dare mo Korinai (誰も懲りない).
Nakamura-sensei's architectural renderings are translated beautifully to film, Long views of nighttime cityscapes, bridges, and causeways give us a sense of movement – the "ride" of the title. Despite that, there's never any real sense of urgency in Rei and Nanae's journey. They aren't running towards anywhere and they aren't hiding all that well from anything. They spend the movie taking the idea of being caught not-quite seriously. Threats of being turned in, turning themselves in, or just committing double suicide, are wielded as almost casual conversational weapons.
The movie preserves many of the key narrative beats of the manga. Flashbacks to their school years were especially effective in explaining why a woman would kill for someone she hasn't seen in years. The acting by both the leads was outstanding. Honami Satou did an excellent job of portraying the desperation of a lonely, self-loathing Nanae. Mizuhara Kiko's Rei is understated and intense, playing a woman who knows she is making bad choices for someone who will only make her life worse. All of the acting is quite spectacular, but the standout performance is Yoko Maki as Rei's girlfriend, Mika, having a hard conversation about being gay with her mother (Setsuko Karasuma) and her goodbye conversation with Rei. Both scenes were nearly identical to the manga and exceptionally well done here.
It's hard to ignore the fact that there are several long, explicit sex scenes, both straight and lesbian, in this movie that did not exist in the manga. None of them were problematic, per se, but they all did go on too long, dragging the pacing of this movie down in places. At several points, the lack of background music was noticeable as we are left uncomfortably with nothing but our own feelings as accompaniment.
The most major difference is with the characters of Rei and Nanae themselves. In the manga they remain nameless throughout the narrative, as Nakamura-sensei said in an interview with me in 2009. "Their feelings resemble the feelings of many people in the world. [The character's] feelings might resemble the way you feel...Therefore, [the characters] in the manga don't really need to be called by a specific name." Here they are named and, as a result, have their own distinct personalities. Both actresses bring the kind of intensity needed for the roles in the dark places, but also have moments of genuine laughter and joy that we don't see in the manga.
Finally, the ending of the movie is not the ending of the manga, which I regard as perfect, so it's a pretty high bar to hit. How this ending will strike a viewer not familiar with the original work may be very different from how it struck me.
Since the very first chapter of Gunjō, I have described reading this series as being "like eating the most delicious razorblades." Ride or Die, while keeping the sharp edges intact, has a distinctly different flavor. Whether it is to your taste will be entirely up to personal preference.
Ride or Die is streaming now on Netflix.