My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (Japan, 2018) [Japan Foundation Film Tour 2020]

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler, the second feature by Kyohei Fujimura, is adapted from the popular picture book My Daddy’s Job is Baddie a.k.a. My Dad is a Heel Wrestler by Itabashi Masahiro and Yoshida Hisanori. Set in a Japanese primary school, the story follows primary student Shota (Kokoro Terada), aged nine, struggling to come to terms and embrace the fact that his lovable father is a NJPW (New Japan Pro Wrestling) wrestler who plays as a despised villain, or in wrestling parlance, a heel wrestler.

Takashi Omura (NJPW wrestler Hiroshi Tanahashi) is introduced as a former leading champion of Lion Pro Wrestling until a debilitating knee injury during a match waylaid his winning career as a face wrestler (face: the heroic protagonist whom fans root for). A decade has passed since and Takashi now wrestles as the antagonist – a heel wrestler (heel: the villain of the game whom audiences deride and jeer). Wearing a mask of a cockroach, he creates a despicable persona Cockroach Mask who, along with his partner Blue Bottle (wrestler Ryusuke Taguchi), is the perfect foil to the face. Unusually, Kyohei presents Takashi and his mates as unaggressive, unlike a typical wrestling movie. These bulked up middle-aged men are polite and almost comically lethargic. Takashi’s recurring rival Dragon George’s (wrestler Kazuchika Okada) entry into the arena is so slowly performed with a calm expression it is a laugh-out-loud moment every time. Kyohei breaks the bubble of wrestlers as signifiers of alpha male fierceness and threat, bringing sharply to focus the demanding toll this sport takes on the body. The training scenes are a series of groans, heavy breaths, and near limping practice runs. Takashi’s injured knee makes his leg slightly bent and when he runs, his arms flailing at his sides, he grimacing and perpetually panting, the film seems to make a case for staying away from everything pro wrestling. This distance created paves the way for Takashi’s world to unfold through the eyes of his young son Shota, the protagonist. At first unknowing of his father’s profession as Takashi evades the question, he is pressured by his schoolmates to reveal his father’s line of work. Eventually finding out his father is a heel wrestler who always cheats and plays unfair in the ring, he naively equates his father’s wrestling persona to who he is as a person. Shota is shattered that his papa isn’t the loving, kind person he knows.

If Shota is suddenly thrust into this life-changing situation, the adults in his world are quite inept in pulling him through this soundly. His father, mired in his shame of playing a rogue heel rather than the heroic face, doesn’t have the maturity yet to dissociate his wrestling persona from who he is in real life – a gentle, caring and generous person with a loving family and in a job he is passionate about. Shota’s mother (Yoshino Kimura) is rather reactionary to what happens to him, and his mate Mana’s (Maharu Nemoto) father (Yasushi Fuchikami) (both fans of wrestling) gives him a quick primer about wrestlers via their personas, presuming the kids know what they are in for.  

Shota feels trapped by everyone, and visually, the camera captures him surrounded by people while he struggles to just speak. Kokoro is endearing in these scenes, scared, sweaty yet getting away with his quick-thinking fibs. His lies come at a price but bring him an invaluable gift when in a hilarious encounter he is caught stealing a Dragon George autograph, by a young woman Michiko (Riisa Naka). A twenty-something journalist, Michiko is delightful chaotic energy as a wrestling obsessed fan. As Shota and Takashi come to a standoff, Michiko fatedly steps in to bridge the distance between father and son. Significantly, when she catches Shota it is on a bridge close to his home. Both bickering, Takashi comes by demanding what has Shota done. Michiko and Takashi simply acknowledge the other. Kyohei visually blocks out adults when Michiko is in a scene and if they are shown, the conversations are hostile. Michiko relishes being with the kids and is the only adult who willingly steps into Shota’s world of naïve ignorance regarding wrestlers. Admonishing him that he should be proud of his father she adds that a wrestler, whether heel or face, must entertain fans. How creatively he accomplishes this through his role-playing wrestling persona is what matters most to audiences. As Michiko brings distraught Shota toward an understanding who the winning face Takashi was and the invaluable heel he is, Takashi regresses, deliberating to get back to wrestling as a face to win the annual championship, for Shota and for himself. Takashi still lives in his regrets of the past that do him no good.

Comprehension and complete acceptance of the other, of oneself, ought to come on one’s own yet it is Michiko’s insightful words that lights the spark for Shota and Takashi to move forward toward the resolution they deserve. My Dad is a Heel Wrestler is not heavy on stylised, attention-grabbing aesthetics. Rather, it draws attention to its narrative of how a young boy comes to find profound significance in what his father does for a living and of a middle-aged man regaining his sense of worth and self-respect in his work and in life. If contentment is what we seek within our family, the film takes us on this search with an assured hand and an eventual readiness to not pursue happiness but create and recreate it through life’s highs and lows.

My Dad is a Heel Wrestler is part of the Japan Foundation Film Touring Programme 2020, which is showing at selected UK venues from January 31 to March 29.