Back in the day, lucha libre-style wrestling was hugely popular in Japan. Tiger Mask, a manga set in the world of Japanese pro-wrestling remains a firm favourite and its eponymous hero has also become a byword for altruistic philanthropy as well-meaning anonymous donors donate expensive gifts such as Japanese school backpacks to orphanages in Tiger Mask’s name. Sadly, pro-wrestling is no longer as high-profile as it once was and has left mainstream television screens far behind even if it still maintains a small but dedicated fanbase. Kohei Taniguchi’s Dynamite Wolf (おっさんのケーフェイ, Ossan no Kefei) is out to change all that by shining a spotlight on this almost forgotten phenomenon of crazy outfits, killer moves, and camp showmanship.
Middle schooler Hiroto is the most ordinary of little boys. He has two good friends, but no particular, hopes, dreams, talents, or aspirations. When his teacher assigns the class a special project in which they are supposed to come up with some kind of act they can do before the class to showcase a special skill, Hiroto is at a loss. His friend Takuto is going to whilstle whilst recent transfer student from Tokyo, Naoya, is going to show off his English but neither of them have any suggestions to help Hiroto figure out what his special talent is. Things only get worse when his mother catches sight of another boy, Teruo, on television being showcased on the news because of his dedication to dance, and insists Hiroto go to dance classes too which he is not really interested in. On the way back however his life changes when he spots a man in a strange shiny suit standing outside smoking. Invited inside, Hiroto witnesses the last ever fight of the legendary wrestler Dynamite Wolf and becomes instantly hooked on Japanese pro-wrestling.
Times being what they are, pro-wrestling is not the coolest of hobbies but Hiroto is undeterred. Running into an old man he thinks might by the real Dynamite Wolf, Hiroto starts training to become a wrestler and roping Takuto and Naoya in to practice too. As Naoya points out, anyone seeing three young kids wrestling around with a 50-year-old man would probably call the police but Mr. Sakata really is just interested in spreading the love of wrestling to the younger generation.
Despite the anti-wrestling sentiment, there’s something quite refreshing about the boys who like boyband-style dancing being the bullies and not the bullied. Teruo is a nasty piece of work and a spoilt brat thanks to the fact his dad is the head of the PTA but his love of dance is never questioned or mocked and is even favoured over the comparatively more “manly” hobby of wrestling.
Like any good kids movie, Dynamite Wolf is equally about the power of friendship as it is about reviving pro-wrestling. Teruo starts out as a little thug, behaving with impunity and making Hiroto’s life a nightmare simply because he’s not quite like them. However, once he learns some unpleasant stuff about his dad his world crumbles and he reforms to become a wrestling ally and all round better person.
Hiroto proves far more mature than his mentor who has repeatedly failed to achieve his dreams and now exists in a strange kind of perpetual childhood, trapped inside his own delusions. Unfairly branded a liar, Sakata does like a few tall tales and remains embittered about his lack of his success. His life has been about wrestling, but the ring has never accepted him and now he spends all his time beating up a blow-up doll on the beach and visiting sex workers for lucha libre workouts. His desire to mentor the boys is a noble one in the service of wrestling, but then again are wrestling skills really worth anything when outsiders simply ignore the rules and go for a one punch knock out?
Taking on a Rocky vibe, the question stops being about winning or losing but about finding your passion and then giving it your all even if it doesn’t end in the predictable fashion. Pro-wrestling might be over the top and campy, more about showmanship and ritual than signature moves technical skill but the friendships, loyalties, and sense of fair play are values which deserve to be fought for – mask on or off.
Dynamite Wolf was screened at the 17th Nippon Connection Japanese Film Festival.
Original trailer (no subtitles)