The Calamari Wrestler (2004)
One of the most fascinating aspects to and about me is how, in a sense, there are multiple manifestations of me.
For instance, those who follow Manor On Movies most often have no idea I hold the world record as the longest-running professional wrestling magazine columnist, and spent the first two dozen of the 29-year run as a dastardly pro-villain rapscallion, corrupting youthful minds on four continents. (And continue to do so in an online-only capacity at http://www.swmswm.com/StatelyStates.htm )
Conversely, most mat maniacs are unaware of lighthearted Film Review Stately with nary a harsh word for movies, actors and directors massacred by mainstream critics.
Of course, sometimes the twains shall meet, with bone-benders starring in movies and actors portraying wrestlers; but it's only once in every 37.65 blue moons that a wrestling-themed flick will rattle your dome like a dropkick in Gnome. With that in mind, ladies and Germans, I present to you Japan's greatest export since the Ginsu knife, The Calamari Wrestler.
It's a complicated life for rising ring star Koji Taguchi (Akira Nogami). He's got a cute fiancee Miyako, previously involved with another tendon-tearer, Kan-Ichi Iwata (Osamu Nishimura)--who suddenly split three years earlier without telling a single soul why or where he was bound--but the hotheaded Koji knows the gal still carries a torch for her former flame. (Get it, torch/flame, tee hee?)
Inside the squared circle, Taguchi is attempting to prove to fans and the promoter that he is world-championship material. The young man does very well, winning the title in his showcase showdown, crowd cheers aplenty. However, his post-match celebration proves to be very short-lived, as he is backjumped by an eight-foot calamari with top-shelf tussling skills. Worse yet, because the impromptu opponent is an invertebrate, Koji's trademark inverted full-nelson finishing hold has no effect!
Despite the severely irate Koji demanding an officially sanctioned match against the intruder, the promoter wants no parts of such a spectacle. A traditionalist with utmost respect for Godozan--the iconic father of the sport in Japan, murdered four decades ago in a cabaret stabbing--he explains how pro wrestling united a greatly fragmented post-war Japan, and is not merely some sort of anything-for-a-yen racket. The legacy of Godozan is one of respectable, hard-working athletes enduring much as they worked their way to the top. No grandstand stunt was going to...yes, you read that right: "an eight-foot calamari."
Said sneak attack occurs when we are only two minutes into the film. And that's just one of SEVERAL marvelously bizarre twists I'm not about to blab about here and thus ruin a truly unique viewing experience.
Since it wont be spoiling anything to discuss a point already touched upon, the wrestling promoter character is primarily here to supply the Serious Sociological Message cleverly slipped into so many Japanese films of the past 60-odd years. Godzilla, for example, wasn't just an awakened dinosaur with an urge to play kickball with subway cars. He represented the atomic bomb--a subject his countrymonsters knew all too well.
One--or two, for that matter--could propose that The Calamari Wrestler is also allegorical, a big word I learned in high school and have never used since. The C-Man is an outsider character who looks different than the norm, initially feared and distrusted, but convinced he must and will win the hearts of the public once people get familiar with his engaging personality. Not a giant leap--especially if you have ten legs--from a story about overcoming racial intolerance.
The Allegory Alfreds and Alices have a solid foundation for their position, but I can't help wondering if Wrestler isn't the Eastern Blood Freak. [reviewed here]
There are scenes with the strapping sea critter merrily food-shopping in an open-air market, a wicker basket on one tentacle; the traditional "young lovers romp gleefully through a field" bit, his GF a human female; and even a discrete, shall we say, "inter-species spawning session" in the shower. (Why didn't Doctor Who ever think of that?)
Factor in those jaw-dropping Things I'm Not Going To Give Away Here, and it is only natural to exclaim "Theyve got to be pulling my leg!" Maybe they are.
And maybe they aren't.
All the described sequences are played completely straight, not a single scent of satire or one whiff of a wink towards the audience. In other words, like all Blood Freak action featuring Titanic-Turkey-Head, a dramatic premise is playing out but you can't resist cracking up over the sheer screwiness of the visual imagery. I mean, an oxygen-breathing, land-strolling three-hundred pound squid hitting the gym (bench-presses, sit-ups, etc, viewable at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jO_f6Vkbwg0 ) to prepare for an upcoming ring battle would put a smirk on the faces on Mount Rushmore.
Sounds kinda like Rocky's worst nightmare after overindulging on the buffet at the South Philly Red Lobster!
Ain't love grand?
What we have here is essentially a tale of love, acceptance and redemption, peppered with some commentary about modern Japanese society. It just so happening that Squidwards big brother was cast as the romantic lead and....okay, I've got to reel it in at this point.
Ordinarily, the No Spoilers policy is a good one and worth adhering to, even if I do have to use a preposition to end a sentence with. But The Calamari Wrestler is no ordinary movie, and I just can't do it proper justice in the "Why you HAVE TO see this" department by withholding details regarding the, um, distinctiveness of its storyline.
So here goes.
The attack-squid-turned-good-guy is actually the MIA Kan-ichi Iwata, who has morphed into a calamari with the assistance of monks, because his lust for Miyako was distractive enough to hinder his wrestling career. Obsessed Koji grows increasingly nasty and jealous in private life, spurring Miyako to dump him and flee into the tentacles of her past paramour--that's her doing the shower-stall shimmy with the ten-armed Kan-ichi--making Koji even more bitter.
So much so, for his official bout against Calamari, he attempts to top the transformed Kan-ichi at his own game, becoming a nine-foot octopus! Yes, oceanography fans, it's the highly anticipated squid vs octopus duel we've all dreamt about for ages.
Prevailing once again, Cal has little time to rest on his laurels, as evildoers attempting to cop his crown have Squilla Boxer, a pugilistic prawn with a lightning punch, publicly assault the now-popular champion on the street.
Repentant reverted-to-human Koji helps train still-squid Kan-ishi, the latter getting his can kicked by Squilla until morphing back into a man and crushing the crustacean...who in turn also regenerates to human form and is Godozan...who reveals, much to the shock of each, Koji and Kan-ishi are brothers--and he's their father!!!
Sure, it may come across as utterly insane "on paper"; but when you view the film--You are convinced now, right?--it will come across as utterly insane onscreen as well.
As if the 95-minute cinematic spectacular weren't mind-blowing enough, consider this: someone had to stand before a gauntlet of studio executives, outline all of the above (and more) as his vision for a magnificent motion picture, in an attempt to convince them to put a sizable investment and the company's worldwide rep on the line.
And he succeeded! I think I know a tuna who bought a wetsuit from this man.
To the victor, go the ladies!
Postscript for wrestling fans. Unlike so many films about the sport, the wrestling here is performed by skilled technicians (both male leads worked in All Japan and New Japan Pro Wrestling), they are forthright about pre-determined outcomes, the business as a whole is treated with full respect, and you'll even catch a Gorilla Monsoon commentary tribute.
Godozans character is clearly based on Rikidozan, the real-life kingpin of Japanese wrestling--he even beat Lou Thesz--until stabbed to death by an underworld hood in a Tokyo nightclub.
So, relax; even if the whole works is a put-on, the ring action is far from cartoonish. Or at least as far as you can get with guys in giant rubber costumes.
The Calamari Wrestler: Now THIS is what I call "sports-entertainment"!!!
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