Film Review: ‘My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler’ Is a Heartwarming Love Letter to Wrestling5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Pro wrestling champion Hiroshi makes his debut as the gentle dad to nine-year-old Shota, whose understanding of goodies versus baddies is challenged when he discovers his father is actually the despicable heel wrestler Cockroach Mask.
Director: Kyôhei Fujimura
Cast: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Yoshino Kimura, Kokoro Terada, Riisa Naka, Ryusuke Taguchi, Kazuchika Okada
Runtime: 118 minutes
I should probably preface the review by saying that I’m a huge wrestling fan. Yes, fans do recognise that it’s all “fake”. There’s even a wrestling term for it: kayfabe, or the portrayal of in-ring events and characters as ‘real’.
Personally, it’s this embracement of kayfabe despite knowing what happens backstage that makes wrestling so entertaining for me. It’s not unlike theatre, where most of the fun comes from playing along, engaging with the staged realities, and soaking in the raw talent displayed.
Coincidentally enough, this is precisely what Japanese film My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler explores and celebrates. Fans will appreciate the film’s numerous references and its sincere treatment of the sport. For non-fans, it serves as an excellent — albeit overexaggerated — introduction to the strange world of wrestling and looks to explain why the sport shouldn’t be dismissed just because it’s all staged.
All this time, pro-wrestler Takashi Omura (Hiroshi Tanahashi) has hidden the truth about his profession from his 9-year-old son Shota (Kokoro Terada). However, a curious Shota sneaks to his father’s workplace one day and has his world turned upside down when he finds out that his dad is a heel wrestler, or bad guy.
The main drama comes from how Shota is unable to untangle kayfabe reality from his loving dad, believing him to be as conniving as his in-ring persona Cockroach Mask. Omura could have easily sat his son down to explain that what goes on in the ring isn’t real — but that would feel like burying Santa. While Shota isn’t a fan, there is a certain kind of innocence and wonder felt from the child’s friends and classmates about the sport that Omura looks to retain.
It’s a story arc that is akin to finding out that Santa isn’t real and learning to play along with the spirit of it all even as adults. I can’t speak for how well it soothes naysayers but I felt the film functions as an excellent family film as well with a loving father-and-son bond at its core, offering a message of acceptance that is unlike any other.
My Dad is a Heel Wrestler stars Hiroshi Tanahashi, perhaps the biggest star or “Ace” in Japanese wrestling today. It is rather ironic to see him play a character forced to turn heel after a career-shortening injury since the actual wrestler remains Japanese wrestling’s top face despite his shoulder being practically held together by superglue at this point.
Tanahashi essentially plays himself in the film, right down to having undoubtedly his greatest in-ring rival Kazuchika Okada in the on-screen rival role of Dragon George. However, without any dramatic highpoints or nuanced performances, the character’s passion for the sport wasn’t really brought forward well. The relationship between father and son is mostly left on the shoulders of young Kokoro, where his childlike innocence and adorable looks are persuasive enough reasons to remain engaged with the film.
Although My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler wraps up its story in an appreciated manner, the film shows its flaws by largely remaining one-note, leaving its nearly two-hours-long runtime to feel superfluous. There is an attempt to spice things up with the introduction of wrestling superfan Michiko (Riisa Naka) but the film shirks away from any interesting character developments she could have injected to the main plot.
Regardless, a clear high point of My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is its treatment of the sport. Thoughtful handling of kayfabe aside, the film captures wrestling’s high-energy in and out of the ring. This is definitely helped by having a cast mostly comprised of actual wrestlers where their natural charisma is able to shine through. Even the film’s camera work feels right at home in wrestling’s bizarre world; there are frequent uses of quirky perspectives and overdramatisation but it never reaches an over-the-top point that cheapens the sport.
Every wrestling fan will tell you that the people who hate wrestling the most are its fans. It gets easy to be frustrated with how what happens behind the curtains especially with how in-ring storylines are written. Told from the perspective of a child, My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is a delicately crafted family film that functions as both a fascinating introduction to the world of wrestling and as a reminder to easily-cynical fans on what exactly it is that made the sport so compelling in the first place.
My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler was screened as part of the ongoing Japanese Film Festival. An online Q&A with the film’s director Fujimura Kyohei will be held tomorrow, 13 December at 8:30 pm. RSVP for your free ticket to the conversation here.
About the Japanese Film Festival
This year’s Japanese Film Festival has adapted to the new normal with its hybrid edition presenting a mix of virtual screenings at Shaw KinoLounge and physical screenings at Shaw and The Projector. For more on its eclectic selection Japanese cinema’s finest, visit its website here. This year’s edition will conclude on 20 December so hurry and grab your tickets now!
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