Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire (South Korea, 2004)

Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire is a movie that, brought to Netflix and their Instant Watch service a few months back due to their recent partnership with CJ Entertainment, seems to have been popping up in my view a lot recently. At one point, it was almost covered on the VCinema podcast, but we inevitably went with Moss instead. Afterward, being that Moss didn’t receive the greatest reception, I had wondered if we made the right choice. Now, with the 2012 Korean Cinema Blogathon in full swing, I thought it might be time to find out. Before initially reading up on Rikidozan: A Hero Extrordinaire, I was only vaguely familiar with the pro-wrestler that this bio-picture covers. I had never actually seen any of Rikidozan’s matches, but his name is one that still holds weight in the business, even today. So, now that I have actually sat down and watched Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire from start to finish, does it stand out above the aforementioned Moss? I’ll answer that with this question: Is pro-wrestling a legitimate sporting contest?

The movie opens up with Rikidozan at the tail end of his career as larger than life and very respected.  The movie then counteracts this image by showing us the very humble beginnings of his career. Being a Zainichi Korean (Korean citizen residing in Japan), we are introduced to the younger version of Rikidozan as he is literally being stomped on by four of his fellow students. This is, of course, due to his heritage. The rest of the film follows a very contrived “rags to riches” formula in detailing the life and times of Rikidozan. We see him trying to become a sumo wrestler, only to be held back by his nationality. Unable to make a living, Rikidozan is introduced to professional wrestling after an altercation in a night club. This leads to him training as a professional wrestler and then growing into arguably the largest and most celebrated Japanese wrestler in all of history.  While digesting that plot synopsis, I am sure many of you readers could have predicted the movie on your own. It is during the very earliest scenes that we see just how much formula is going to play into the movie. With Rikidozan working his way up from the bottom of the ranks, we see him being (almost literally) tortured as he attempts to become a sumo wrestler. Racism is certainly a key factor in the life of the real Rikidozan, and during his career he actually kept his heritage a tightly regarded secret. So, there is certainly some fact to be found in this story, but the conveniently tied in formulas tend to hold this movie back from being anything remotely earnest.

In almost all ways, the movie seems a bit exaggerated. To emphasize the brilliant athleticism of Rikidozan, the police who chase him in a very early scene are out of breath after only two blocks, but Rikidozan charges onward. To show how patriotic and respectable Rikidozan is, we see him recite a battle anthem in defiance of the police who are chasing him on some racially-motivated charges. Then there are the performances, which are about as over-the-top and sensationalistic as you could ever possibly expect from a movie like this one. Instances of extreme anger or mental anguish are played with about as much depth as spilled water. With a sense of naivete that is nearly awe inspiring, Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire delivers its melodrama in a style that seems to harken back to a time when audiences weren’t expected to know any better. Although the character of Rikidozan is shown in a three-dimensional way, we do get to see him confront his own temper and selfishness quite often.  When the movie wants us to see him as a hero, they pull out all of the stops. In one scene ,he may be throwing a temper tantrum and destroying his house, but in the next he will give an extremely over-wrought speech about honesty, courage, and sincerity. During these sequences, Rikidozan is, for all intents and purposes, Superman. He is Hulk Hogan telling us to drink our milk and take our vitamins. He is too “good” to be believable.

Well, what about the wrestling? Surely, if there is an upside to the Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire experience, this has to be it, right? Well, not really. While the action in the ring, for the most part, is exciting, the way that the business side of wrestling is presented shows another layer of the condescending attitude present throughout the movie. Although it seems apparent to nearly every human being on the planet that pro-wrestling is entertainment and features predetermined outcomes, Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinaire hopes that we can suspend that belief for the entirety of its running time, or in wrestling terms, kayfabe.  Although the movie hints at times that the matches are predetermined, if you’re looking for a “behind the scenes” look at this man’s career, you may be disappointed.  We are led to believe that the wrestling matches in the film were fairly legitimate sporting events, and that characters would “lie down” on occasion in order to better the business or for a lump sum of money. This is presented in the same fashion that one would expect from boxing, but it doesn’t present the fact that every single match is a scripted event. Someone wins, someone loses, but both guys are in on it, and so are all of the folks in the back room. After a while, audiences feel like they are being spoken down to.

Ultimately, there’s not a whole lot else to say about this one. The drama is hamfisted, the story is by-the-numbers, and the action is only decent. If you’re a wrestling fan and you’ve searched out a lot of information on Rikidozan, then chances are you’ll want to see this no matter how bad it may seem. For everyone else, this might be one to try and avoid.