Friday, March 15, 2013

Rikidozan: When Wrestling had Prestige

Rikidozan never won an Olympic medal, but he probably inspired many Japanese wrestlers who did.  Unfortunately, they may not have the chance to win more anytime soon, since the IOC decided to drop the sport from the upcoming games. (Many suspect corruption, since the IOC is the IOC.) The man who popularized western-style wrestling (meaning non-sumo) in Japan became a national hero, but he was actually Korean.  His eventful life is dramatized in screenwriter-director Song Hae-sung’s Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire (trailer here), available on DVD from Pathfinder Entertainment.

Before he was Rikidozan, he was born Kim Sin-rak in Korea and assumed the name Mitsuhiro Momota when he pursued a sumo career.  However, he was never compatible with the sport’s rigid hierarchy.  Thanks to a reluctant patron, he trained in America, where he played the villain in the ring.  Of course, to the Japanese fans following his career in the press, he is the hero.  Returning to Japan, Rikidozan lays a beatdown on the American champion, becoming a national celebrity and firmly establishing western wrestling with Japanese sports fans.

You might wonder: gee, isn’t “western” wrestling fake?  As it happens, rumors of scripted bouts dog Rikidozan, who handles them rather badly.  Yet, in his defense, he also tends to win matches he is supposed to throw.  Basically, Rikidozan excels at ticking people off and making bad decisions.  Unfortunately, he also neglects his long suffering wife Aya.

Seol Kyung-gu is a strong likeness for the real life Rikidozan, bringing a beefy physicality to the role.  He looks like he really could dispense the odd body slam if called upon.  If he is the beast, Miki Nakatani is the beauty.  Heartrending yet exquisitely dignified, her sensitive performance as Aya is not that far removed from her devastating work in Tetsuya Nakashima’s Memories of Matsuko.

It might be faint praise, but Rikidozan could possibly be the best wrestling movie ever.  Although the subtitle assures us he is a hero, it is hard to like the grappling protagonist.  Nonetheless, Song makes it clear his self-destructive caddishness is always rooted in his Korean transplant inferiority complex.  Oddly, his bio-picture somewhat compliments Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill, addressing issues of Japanese national esteem during roughly the same time period.  Recommended for sports movie fans, Rikidozan is available for home viewing from Pathfinder Entertainment.