it has been said, is soap opera designed for men.
Rather than be classified as an actual sport, wrestling
is what's euphemistically referred to as "sports
entertainment" since the outcomes are, as most
now know, predetermined. Yet what laymen usually don't
realize when they dismissively call wrestling "fake"
is that it usually involves an intense behind the
scenes power struggle. Who wins and who loses a match
is of prime importance to not only the overarching
storyline presented to the wrestling audience, but
to the wrestlers themselves and ultimately their livelihood.
And despite its lowbrow associations, professional
wrestling often reflects or, in some rare instances,
even influences the dominant culture to a great degree.
Both the out-of-the ring political jockeying and the
intense cultural influence of wrestling are covered
in Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinary, Song Hae-Seong's
compelling, if flawed, 2004 bio-pic of the legendary
"Father of Puresu."
Kyung-Ku learned Japanese and put on weight to play
the role of Rikidozan, a Korean immigrant who originally
went by the name Kim Shin-Rak. The film begins in
1950s era Japan and charts Kim's rise to fame from
humble beginnings. Having immigrated to Japan to learn
sumo wrestling, Kim finds himself a victim of prejudice
due to his Korean heritage. Even after cleverly finding
a way to ascend up the ranks, racism prevents him
from achieving his dream of competing for the celebrated
title of Yokozuna. Feeling that he's wasted ten years
of his life, Kim cuts his top-knot, quits sumo wrestling,
and slinks off into a world of utter despair.
At this point, everything
in his life seems be going straight to hell, but Kim
gets a lucky break. Thanks to a chance encounter with
a pre-Goldfinger Harold Sakata (Keiji Mutoh),
Kim gets introduced to the world of professional wrestling.
With the backing of his mentor/benefactor Kenno Takeo
(Fuji Tatsuya), Kim goes to the United States to learn
the ropes and returns to Japan as Rikidozan, an iconic
figure who would go on to have a major impact on professional
wrestling, transforming it from an unknown commodity
in Japan into the country's most popular sporting
With the Japanese people
finding themselves on the losing end of World War
II, their morale was at an all-time low. Rikidozan
theorized that they were looking for heroes to root
for, and that pro wrestling (and by extension, himself)
helped fulfilled that need in spades. And as it turns
out, he was right. In a scene that would seem unbelievable
if it didn't actually happen, a crowd of thousands
gather around a small television in a public square
to watch as Rikidozan and his tag partner face off
against the intimidating Sharpe Brothers, an imposing
duo of Americans (in actuality, they were Canadians,
but the Japanese didn't know that). In a stunning
bit of athletic theatre, Rikidozan turns the tables
on the American "bullies," and in the process,
wins over the hearts and minds of the Japanese in
a sequence that is at once thrilling and moving, despite
its pretty much telegraphed ending.
Of course, with Rikidozan's
Korean origins, it's ironic that he would become a
national icon, a fact touched upon by the filmmakers
later in the narrative. After achieving a measure
of fame, Rikidozan drops in on an old Korean friend.
When his buddy asks him to reveal his identity to
the public, Rikidozan responds, ""I am Rikidozan,
and I belong to the world." As it turns out,
having his background revealed is the least of his
worries: a crumbling marriage, a horrible temper,
and backbiting galore from his pro wrestling comrades
seem to put Rikidozan on a collision course with disaster.
But somehow he perseveres.
But as much as the film
sounds like an example of hero worship, Rikidozan:
A Hero Extraordinary is far from a fluff piece.
Certainly the man's positive strides are depicted,
but so, too, are his failures. Hard-headed and prone
to violence, Rikidozan is a flawed man indeed. Miki
Nakatani portrays Rikidozan's long-suffering wife
Aya, and it's her presence that reminds viewers just
how much of a selfish cad he can be.
the "realities" of pro wrestling are treated
somewhat ambiguously. Unlike The Foul King,
which despite its comic premise showed the ins and
outs of professional wrestling with remarkable candor
and faithfulness, Rikidozan wants to have it
both ways. Although people "in the know"
will understand exactly what is being portrayed in
the behind-the-scenes confrontations, the scenes are
depicted in such a way that if one wants to believe
that wrestling is "real," there's really
nothing in the movie that would contradict such a
belief. Sure, there are payoffs and people "throwing
matches," but these incidents are made to sound
like the outcome of a legitimate sporting event like
a baseball game or a boxing match were in question,
not a wrestling match.
Although this 139 minute
director's cut feels a bit overlong, the film does
hold great historical value in telling its story.
Rikidozan as a person is a bit too rough around the
edges to elicit the audience's total sympathy,but
his story is a compelling, often exciting one. Whatever
Rikidozan: A Hero Extraordinary's faults as
a film, director Seong Hae-Seong crafts a well-made
biography of an unconventional, yet very real Japanese
hero. (Calvin McMillin, 2005)