My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (パパはわるものチャンピオン, Kyohei Fujimura, 2018)

“Your job embarrasses me” little Shota (Kokoro Terada) coldly tells his actually quite lovely father, slowly closing the door on his well meaning attempt at connection. Self evident from the title, My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (パパはわるものチャンピオン, Papa wa Warumono Champion), Shota’s dad Takashi (real life wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi) is a former champ reduced to playing the “heel”, a masked villain fans love to hate whose signature move is comic relief. Like all little boys, Shota really looked up to his father and wanted to be just like him, and so he gets a dose of paternal disappointment a little earlier than expected in realising that he is in a sense a professional loser with a degree of internalised shame regarding his failure to get back in the ring under his own identity. 

10 years previously, just before 9-year-old Shota was born, Takashi was a champion but a knee injury cost him his career. To stay in the game and provide for his family, he decided to become a heel as a temporary measure until he was well enough to return to being a “face”. A decade later however he’s still “Cockroach Mask” working with “Bluebottle” as a comedy villain known for pulling all sorts of unscrupulous tricks like using “Roach Spray” on his opponents or extracting gadgets from a Doraemon-esque interdimensional portal in the shape of a garbage can. Ashamed of himself, Takashi has avoided telling Shota what exactly it is he does for a living, promising that he’ll explain everything when he’s older. 

But Shota’s at the age when everyone at school is boasting about their dads and it’s niggling at him that he doesn’t really know, especially when one of his friends jumps to the conclusion he must be a yakuza. Determined to find out, Shota does some detective work and secretly follows him, only to wind up surrounded by beefy guys backstage at the ring. Bumping into a wrestling obsessive classmate (Maharu Nemoto) there with her father (Yasushi Fuchikami), Shota is horrified to realise his dad’s that jerk that everyone hates so when she somehow jumps to the conclusion that his dad’s her idol, reigning champ Dragon George (real life wrestler Kazuchika Okada), he doesn’t bother to correct her. 

The irony is, Takashi is a genuinely nice guy. He’s desperate to make it to Shota’s parents’ morning at school, but misses it because he stops on the way to help an old lady who was struggling with her shopping. When the kids are asked to compose a speech about their dreams for the future, Shota says that he wants to get big and strong like his dad in the hope that being big will also make him kind. Shota, however, is still too young to understand the way that wrestling works. He only sees his dad degrade himself, do “bad” things to win, and act in an underhanded, dishonourable way that is completely at odds with his offstage personality. Yet as much as it is that he’s disappointed to think his dad’s a “loser”, the real cause of his resentment is seeing that he’s not being true to himself. Shota’s mother tells him that wrestling is Takashi’s passion, but he pointedly asks her if his dream was being a heel, which it obviously wasn’t. 

While Shota picks up on his dad’s internalised sense of shame over the failure to achieve his dreams, he indulges in a little subterfuge himself in keeping up the pretence that his father is not the hated Cockroach Mask but the universally loved Dragon George. Failing to clear up the misunderstanding makes him an unexpected class hero, but it also unbalances the social hierarchy with snooty rich kid and all-round popular boy Yuta irritated at Shota stealing his thunder. When some of his friends start to doubt his story, it’s not the fact that Takashi is Cockroach Mask that upsets them only that Shota lied. Having a pro wrestler dad is cool in itself, he didn’t need to worry about what people would think and he shouldn’t have anyway because he should have stuck by his father rather than rejecting him completely and changing his dream to boring salaryman like the odious Yuta. 

Takashi, meanwhile, needs to think through why he’s doing a job that he’s essentially ashamed of. Bluebottle, his partner, who entered the trade as a heel and loves the strange thrill of being booed by the crowd, is offended at his insinuation that being a heel is somehow embarrassing. Michiko (Riisa Naka), an eccentric journalist and wrestling obsessive, tries to explain to Shota that the heel is an essential part of the game – you can’t have a fight without a villain after all, but Takashi still wants to be the face and regain his rightful place as a champion. He can’t let go of past glory and struggles to accept that there are new ways to win. “Wrestling’s not about winning or losing, it’s a way of life” an exasperated Michiko tells her editor (Yo Oizumi), trying to get him interested in the soap opera drama by way of investment in Takashi’s struggle. You don’t have to win, all you have to do is keep getting back up and make sure you put on a good show. Shota figures out that just because his dad’s a “bad guy” doesn’t make him a bad person, while Takashi figures out the only way to be the champ is to embrace his inner roach. Turns out, what wrestling’s all about is authenticity, just not quite in the way you were expecting it. 


Screened as part of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2020.

Hong Kong release trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Hayato Kawai, 2015)

my-love-storyThey say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but for some guys you’ll have to do a whole lot of baking. Based on the popular manga which was also recently adapted into a hit anime (as is the current trend) My Love Story!! (俺物語!!, Ore Monogatari!!) is the classic tale of innocent young love between a pretty young girl and her strapping suitor only both of them are too reticent and have too many issues to be able to come round to the idea that their feelings may actually be requited after all. This is going to be a long courtship but faint heart never won fair maiden.

Takeo (Ryohei Suzuki) has been best friends with next-door neighbour Suna (Kentaro Sakaguchi) ever since they were small and he made a point of becoming his defender when Suna was the new kid in town and the other boys made fun of him. However, Taeko is a big lug of a guy, adored by the his male classmates for his off the charts level of coolness, but often shunned by the ladies thanks to his impulsive nature and booming voice. Suna, by contrast, is massively popular and finds himself surrounded by swooning girls everywhere he goes. Being the big hearted guy he is, when Takeo notices his middle school crush confessing her love to Suna on graduation day, he makes sure Suna lets her down gentle and chooses to break his own heart instead.

You see, being the big guy is not exactly easy. A little slow on the uptake but also extremely sensitive, Takeo has been hearing gorilla jokes his whole life and so has internalised an intense feeling of being completely unloveable. Despite this, he remains an extremely good person who just wants everyone else to be happy even if he’s convinced himself he’s not allowed to be. Thus when he saves timid high school girl Rinko (Mei Nagano) from a persistent street harasser and falls in love at first sight, it doesn’t really occur to him that the same thing might have happened to her. Mistaking Rinko’s attempts to get his attention for a backhanded way to get to his more conventionally handsome friend, Takeo resolves to get the two together no matter what!

It would be difficult to find a romance quite as innocent as My Love Story!! which (successfully) strings out one wilful misunderstanding for around two hours. There are no great scenes of jealous exes or sudden arranged marriages to contend with, just two people entirely incapable of speaking plainly. Takeo is so invested in the idea of his own ugliness that it just doesn’t make sense to him that anyone would choose him over the conventionally handsome Suna. Likewise Rinko is quite a timid girl, bowled over by the cool way Takeo dealt with her street harasser and subsequent acts of heroism throughout the film. Though her friends may crack gorilla jokes behind her back, Rinko can see straight through to Takeo’s giant heart and is always ready to defend him, even if her own diffidence means she can’t just tell Takeo how she really feels in a way he understands.

Meanwhile, Suna is very bored by all of these missed messages as his well meaning buddy tries to foist the girl he himself loves on his obviously disinterested friend. As for why Suna is so disinterested, the film is also a somewhat coy. A little shy and awkward himself, Suna is uncomfortable with all the attention his ridiculous good looks bring him, as well as additional resentment from the other guys and often needing to deflect praise for Takeo’s heroism which people often seem to attribute to him. It may just be that Suna is over the superficial and is waiting for someone to see past his pretty boy face but his refusal to talk about the kind of girl he likes aside from going for “big and strong” perhaps hints at an altogether different reason. In any case, Suna getting fed up with being persistantly gooseberried becomes the final catalyst for finally explaining to Takeo what exactly has been going on these past few months.

Before you know it, enough baked goods to feed a small army have been consumed but Takeo is still having trouble realising that they each had a secret ingredient – love! Sometimes nice guys do get the girl, even if it involves shielding them from a falling coffin in a haunted house that’s on fire which is not as good of a metaphor as you’d think but it’ll do for now. Old fashioned and innocent, My Love Story isn’t going to set the world on fire, but it might just light a flame in your heart.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Copycat Killer (模倣犯, Yoshimitsu Morita, 2002)

copycatYoshimitsu Morita had a long standing commitment to creating “populist” mainstream cinema but, perversely, he liked to spice it with a layer of arthouse inspired style. 2002’s Copycat Killer(模倣犯, Mohouhan) finds him back in the realm of literary adaptations with a crime thriller inspired by Miyuki Miyabe’s book in which the media becomes an accessory in the crazed culprit’s elaborate bid for eternal fame through fear driven notoriety.

Following a non-linear structure, the film first introduces us to an old man who runs a tofu shop where he lives with his middle aged daughter who is in the middle of a breakdown following the end of her marriage, and his grown up granddaughter who has become the woman of the house during her mother’s illness. Though not without its difficulties his life was happy enough but after granddaughter Mariko goes out one evening and never comes home, nothing will ever be the same again.

A severed arm and a handbag are discovered in a flower bed by a teenage boy whilst walking a dog, though a mysterious distorted voice later contacts the media to inform them that the arm and the handbag do not belong to the same woman. The boy, oddly enough, is the sole survivor of his family who were all murdered some years previously. He was interviewed at the time by press reporter Yumiko whose soba shop owning brother may have a connection to the crimes. The cold blooded killer knows all of this and is engineering coincidences into a grand plan in which he will harness the power of mass media to earn himself a kind of national respect as an “expert” on the crimes which he has himself been committing.

Hitting a style somewhere between The Black House and Keiho, Morita opts for a dreamlike atmosphere filled with dissolves, soft split screens and hacker inspired graphical touches. Not only is the killer interested in appearing on TV either in voice or in person but can also manipulate mass media by hacking commercials and billboards to proclaim his own messages. As well as the early computer inspired effects, photo zooms, and contemporary methods of evidence presentation, Morita wrong foots the audience by zigzagging through the chronology of crime beginning with the central murder then switching back to the killers as they are now, then their childhoods, and cutting back to each of the other protagonists – the grandfather, teenage boy, and reporter.

Possibly inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, the killers are a duo of psychotic young men who think they can achieve everlasting fame and personal satisfaction by committing the kind of murders which have never been committed before. The true motivator of the crimes even tells one of his victims that she ought to be grateful. That she was leading a “pointless” life and now she’s being given the opportunity to “serve” in something greater as a component in his master plan. Before, he explains, she’d just have gone on living until she died and been forgotten but now she’ll be a star – everyone will remember her name as a victim in the crime of the century and the world will mourn her death.

At another juncture, the killer also remarks that absolute faith in the family unit is the reason a relative of a suspect or victim of crime is routinely targeted by the press and a source of recrimination even though they themselves had nothing to do with it. Family issues are also a factor as rejection and abandonment by parental figures is offered as a reason for why a person may eventually become deranged. Thus, the killer’s intention to harness mass media for worldwide fame through committing heinous, terrible crimes is painted as a quest for the attention and recognition he never received from his parents. The family is both nothing and everything, but as we reach the conclusion it’s family that engenders hope as we’re presented with a potential new family committing to proving that nurture can trump nature with happy childhoods building mentally balanced adults.

The grief stricken grandfather tells the killer that his selfish actions are cowardly and pointless. That if he really wanted to cause a sensation in this cruel world, he should have become a hero and taught people how to love instead of hate – that would be the true radical action. Morita’s essential world view is once again resolutely bleak but offered with a wry and cynical sense of humour. The final messages are of acceptance and moving on no matter how hard it may be, and of trying to create something good out of even the very worst occurrences. The film’s extremely strange, oddly explosive expressionist finale takes things a step too far and the youthful, contemporary electronic score with its link to the stereotypical hacking iconography occasionally calls attention to itself but Copycat Killer still proves an entertaining, multilayered crime thriller filmed with Morita’s characteristically experimental approach and necessary dose of oddness.


Unsubtitled trailer:

The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー, Koki Mitani, 2008)

Magic Hour PosterIf there’s one thing you can say about the work of Japan’s great comedy master Koki Mitani, it’s that he knows his cinema. Nowhere is the abundant love of classic cinema tropes more apparent than in 2008’s The Magic Hour (ザ・マジックアワー) which takes the form of an absurdist meta comedy mixing everything from American ‘20s gangster flicks to film noir and screwball comedy to create the ultimate homage to the golden age of the silver screen.

In classic style the film opens with a bunch of goons chasing a scantily clad club owner out of a hotel window. Bingo (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has been hitting the jackpot with the boss’ girl, Mari (Eri Fukatsu), so the two are about to be given a new set of kicks in the latest fashion – cement. Luckily Bingo overhead some of the other guys talking about looking for another gangster, Della Togashi, so he quickly starts talking about him as if he were a long lost friend. The boss, Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida), gives the pair a reprieve on the condition Bingo tracks down Togashi and brings him in within five days. Slight hitch – Bingo had never heard of Togashi before today and has no idea where to start. Finally, with the help  of some of his bar staff he hatches on the idea of getting a random actor to play the part, seeing as no one knows what Togashi looks like. However, the actor, Murata (Koichi Sato), plays his part a little too well and gets hired to work for the gang all the while thinking it’s just a movie! Pretty much everyone is getting a little more than they bargained for…

If you’re thinking that the oddly American looking 1920s street scene looks a little fake and everyone seems to be overacting like crazy, you wouldn’t be wrong but like everything else there’s a reason for that. What originally looks to be the primary setting for the film is a strange bubble which seems to co-exist with the modern world only its filled with people straight out of The Public Enemy or Scarface who think cement shoes is an efficient way of dealing with traitors. Murata, by contrast, is from our world and is completely oblivious to the strangeness of this movie gangster sound stage universe.

Murata is fixated on the Casablanca-esque final scene of his favourite movie in which a dyed in the wool tough guy entrusts the love of his life to a loyal friend before heading off to face certain death. His own career has not been going particularly well and even if he originally turns down Bingo’s offer as working with a first time director on a film where there’s no script sounds pretty fishy to begin with, circumstances soon find him throwing himself into the mysterious leading role with aplomb. Indulging his long held gangster dreams, Murata becomes the archetypal movie hit-man. He’s giving the performance of his life but has no idea there is no film in the camera.

The “Magic Hour” of the title refers to the twilight time near the end of the day when the light is dying but the conditions are perfect for making a movie. Mitani doesn’t fail to remind us we’re watching a film with constant exclamations of “just like a movie” or “doesn’t this look like a film set”. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be – but somehow it all just works despite its rather arch, meta approach. By the point we’ve hit Mari sitting on a crescent moon to give us her rendition of I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles (we’re back to The Public Enemy again) we’ve hit peak ‘20s though we scarcely mind at all.

Though he is indeed sending a lot of these classic ideas up, there’s real love here particularly for those golden age Hollywood movies with their wounded tough guys and beautiful chorus girls in need of rescue. Mitani adopts a primarily theatrical tone which meshes well with the absurdist, artificial atmosphere but always makes sure to leave us a fair few clues in the way of laughs. However, probably correctly assuming we know these films as well as he does, Mitani doesn’t give us the typical narrative that would almost write itself (or allow Bingo to write it based on his own trips to the motion picture house). The “bad” guy turns out to be not so bad, the “hero” wasn’t who we thought he was and none of our central guys winds up with a girl. Beautifully silly yet intricately constructed, The Magic Hour is another comedy masterpiece from Mitani which is filled with his characteristic warmth, mild sentimentalism and plenty of off-centre humour of the kind only Mitani can come up with.


The Japanese DVD/blu-ray release of The Magic Hour includes English subtitles.