Japanese pop culture can be so crazieeee, especially as filtered through their national cinema! You already know this if you’ve seen any films by Noboru Iguchi (A Larva to Love, 2003; RoboGeisha, 2009), Gen Sekiguchi (Survive Style 5+, 2004), Sion Sono (Exte: Hair Extensions, 2007; Why Don’t You Play in Hell?, 2013), and especially Minoru Kawasaki, who likes plopping animal-suited characters into his genre films in order to mix it up with the humans who, in most cases, might be initially surprised but usually become complacent about the absurdity of the situation.
A good example of this is Kawasaki’s The Calamari Wrestler (2004) which is the sort of movie which will immediate polarize potential viewers into two camps based solely on images or clips from the film, its plot description or even the title alone. It all depends on how you feel about a movie in which a former championship wrestler-turned-squid returns to the ring to reclaim his title, win back his girlfriend who is now the fiancee of the current champion, and battle corrupt promoters and new rivals such as Squilla, the boxing shrimp.
Ridiculous? Stupid? Infantile? Guilty as charged on some levels and some readers have already moved on to other blogs or websites. But for the more curious minded, Kawasaki’s films, despite their absurd premises, unapologetic on-the-fly production values and no-budget special effects, are on to something that resonates beyond the lowbrow humor. All of his films from The Calarmari Wrestler to Executive Koala (2005) to The World Sinks Except Japan (2006 – Great title!) to Pussy Soup (2008) poke fun at but also critique contemporary Japanese culture.
The country seems to be having a major identity crisis, compounded by their declining importance in the world’s economy as well as the conformist nature of their society. According to 21st century films such as Bashing (2005) – Masahiro Kobayashi’s movie about a Japanese aid worker in Iraq who is kidnapped, held as a hostage and later released only to become an embarrassment and pariah in her own country – it takes guts to be an individual there and stand out from the crowd. The risks could be more than anyone anticipated and this is also a predominant theme in Kawasaki’s films where such outsiders as Executive Koala or The Calamari Wrestler are cartoonish metaphors for those who try to fit in spite of their uniqueness.
I have to admit that I often find Japanese pop culture baffling but I am continually drawn to their cinema which has a repulsion/attraction effect. Michael Atkinson, in an article on Minoru Kawasaki’s films on IFC.com, voiced a similar opinion when he summed up the strangeness of the country’s identity on screen, stating “…what I see flowing out of Japan triggers a flight response: the cute cult, the schoolgirl obsession, the giant-penis-monster animated porn, the apocalyptic visions, the oceans of twisted-fairy-tale manga, the deification of inexplicable toys, the combination of all of the above, and so on. It’s as if, by Western junk-culture standards in the last three or so decades, Japan is going joyfully, helplessly insane.”
For proof of this, look no further than The Calamari Wrestler. Imagine Rocky with the title character played by a guy in a big ten-armed squid costume or that other fight drama classic The Harder They Fall with promoter Humphrey Bogart’s boxer wannabe portrayed by a man in a gorilla suit. While this one-joke premise might be briefly amusing to think about, not many filmmakers would be foolhardy enough to actually base a feature film on it, much less be able to sustain the viewer’s interest beyond the sixty minute mark, if even that long.
The beauty of The Calamari Wrestler is the fact that you quickly adjust to the utterly ridiculous appearance and behavior of the title character because your attention is diverted from his “otherness’ to the fast-moving storyline that throws numerous subplots and characters into the mix. Pretty soon you’re wondering if Miyako (Kana Ishida), the girlfriend of wrestling champ Koji Taguchi (Akira), is going to leave him for the Calamari Wrestler, the reincarnation of her former lover and ex-wrestling legend Kan-Ichi Iwata (Osamu Nishimura). And will the squid hero refuse to participate in a fixed fight arranged by the corrupt President of the Pro Wrestling League? Or will Calamari become seduced and ultimately undone by all of the media attention, groupies and public adoration he receives? Instead, you should probably be asking yourself, “Why am I watching a movie about some guy in a dumb looking rubber squid suit? You can see the zipper! Why is he wearing those ridiculous boots?” This is theatre of the absurd territory, albeit on a much sillier, slaphappy level than Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story or Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. On one level The Calamari Wrestler could be about Japan’s need for a national hero or even superhero. In a less obvious way, the film might be a critique of what director Masahiro Kobayashi referred to as Japan’s “village mentality” in interviews about his film Bashing, which was based on a real incident, one in which an individual’s personal actions are seen as a reflection on the entire community and result in a situation where everyone feels dishonored. Most of all though The Calamari Wrestler is a comic fantasy that parodies everything in the culture from reincarnation to athlete endorsement ads to tabloid exposes to the cliches of romantic movies (Miyako and Calamari embracing in a golden sunset accompanied by sappy soundtrack music). And, of course, the Rocky/Karate Kid associations are unavoidable as our underdog hero longs to prove himself. “I want to be loved,” he tells the sleazy Pro Wrestling promoter. “People will love me if I win. For them, a hero is a winner.” Instead, the promoter jeers him. “Like hell you’ll be loved, you monster. Look in the mirror!” In his master plan, “The threat of nuclear weapons and terrorism and all the chaos of the today’s society can be embodied by Calamari!”
Some of the biggest laughs in the film are generated by Calamari’s preparation for the big showdown with Squilla – a hilarious montage a la Rocky of him lifting barbells, running on a treadmill, doing situps, running along the river with his trainer – and the wrestling match between him and Octopus Man which is almost obscene in the way the blobby, rubbery bodies writhe together in an entanglement of body parts. Kawasaki and co-writer Masakazu Migita also pepper the dialogue with odd remarks or weird asides such as the Calamari Wrestler telling reporters he is from Hunza, Pakistan or having Squilla toy with our hero in the ring, promising him “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of your widowed wife,” followed by an evil laugh.
Kids will love The Calamari Wrestler too (they won’t need to read subtitles to follow it) and it’s one of the rare kid friendly movies from Japan that can entertain adults too, at least those who are willing to suspend their disbelief. Yes, Miyako and Squidman do get it on in one scene but it is non-explicit and tastefully done……I can’t believe I said that but it’s true. Minoru Kawasaki’s other films since The Calamari Wrestler, however, have become progressively wilder, more unpredictable and, for some, less accessible. I found Executive Koala to be a fascinating mess with the first third of the film a brilliant deadpan satire of Japanese corporate life. The middle section veers off abruptly into black comedy with stylized violence and gore and the final third has a whimsical tongue-in-cheek quality that includes a music video singalong that appears inspired by “The Telephone Song” in Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and the music of the B-52s. It’s schizophrenic to say the least and even when it goes off the rails, it remains strangely engrossing. The aptly titled The World Sinks Except Japan (2006) is a disaster movie parody with some wicked humor aimed at foreigners, Japanese politicians and other sacred cows but the poverty row budget (most of it takes place in a bar as the patrons witness the unfolding events) and uneven pacing prevent it from being one of Kawasaki’s best. The Rug Cop (2006) is a cop comedy starring Moto Fuyuki as a detective whose hair piece functions as a lethal flying weapon. The idea is funnier than the film which wears out its one joke premise pretty quickly but check out the trailer which is the perfect length. I’ve not seen The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit (2008), Kawasaki’s humorous homage to Kazui Nihonmatsu’s 1967 sci-fi adventure, The X from Outer Space, or Pussy Soup ( 2008) about a cat who fails at being a supermodel like his father and becomes a ramen chef instead. While Kawasaki’s films are sometimes hit or miss the premise is almost always delightfully demented and I wouldn’t expect anything less from a guy whose first film was about killer tofu (inspired by his love of Toho sci-fi movies). So far Kawasaki’s films haven’t commanded much respect or attention from U.S. critics with few exceptions. In The New York Times review Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “Goofy, bizarre, yet surprisingly coherent, The Calamari Wrestler veils sharp social commentary with irreverent humor and corny romance. The production values are erratic, the acting barely adequate, and the effects more cheesy than special – somewhere between “The Muppets” and “Godzilla” – but the film possesses a good-natured charm.”
Overall, however, Kawasaki’s work is probably considered declasse by most critics, especially compared to director peers like Kiyoshi Kurosawa, whose Journey to the Shore was a 2015 Cannes Film Festival winner; the film is a meditative drama about a widow whose husband turns up as a ghost after a three year disappearance and they embark on a road trip. I can only imagine what Kawasaki would do with this scenario but it’s Kurosawa who is meriting the serious attention from U. S. critics, not the maker of The Calamari Wrestler.
None of that seems to bother Kawasaki who appears to understand why he’ll never make the cover of Film Comment. In an interview on the Twitch web site, he said, “I can only make comedies. I would never be good at romantic movies where people cry and are sentimental…it’s very hard for a comedian to be silly all the time. A comedian can’t be a comedian forever. Once they become famous, they tend to become more serious like going into politics. I want to be silly for the rest of my life.” It looks like he’ll achieve that goal if he continues marching to the kooky drummer in his head. “I want to make a movie about a cat joining a professional baseball team in Japan,” he said. “The idea is…now that Ichiro and Matsui have gone to the major leagues, Japanese baseball teams are hurting. There is a Japanese proverb saying “Even a cat’s hand will do (explanation: you are so busy, you really need help and would even use a cat’s hand if you could).” So, in the movie, a cat will come rescue the team.” Yes, something is seriously wrong in Japan.
*This is an updated and revised version of the original blog that first appeared on TCM’s Movie Morlocks website.
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