Monday, October 1, 2012

The Calamari Wrestler (2004)... Angie's Pick for October


Angie

"So I found this Japanese movie on Netflix about a guy wrestling a giant squid. Want to get together and watch it?"

I don't know about you, but when a friend said this to me a few years ago, there was no way I was refusing. As such, a group of us got some beers and sat down in my living room to enjoy this wonderfully insane movie.

Taguchi is a popular pro wrestler in Japan and has just won the Super Japan Pro Wrestling Championship. But his victory is interrupted when a human-sized squid enters the ring. Taguchi's wrestling moves aren't particularly helpful against an invertebrate, so he is trounced by the Calamari Wrestler. It wasn't an official match, of course, but Taguchi's ego has been sufficiently bruised.

The movie that follows this opening scene is the Rocky series meets pro-wrestling with a bit of Japanese giant monster movie thrown in. I have a fondness for all three of these, so this movie is heaven to me. The ridiculous premise works because it's played totally straight, allowing us in the audience to laugh at it in full.

The Calamari Wrestler defeated Taguchi using the signature move of former pro wrestler Kan, who retired from the business three years ago when he was struck with a fatal illness. Through a strange mystical procedure that is never entirely explained to us, Kan was able to return from the dead and, as long as he lives his life free of desires and fear, he will survive. There's just that small side effect of being a giant squid now rather than a human being. No biggie.

The manager of Super Japan Pro Wrestling is excited about the sudden appearance of the Calamari Wrestler, as he's sure to equal big ratings. The only problem is that he wants Calamari to lose to Taguchi. He speaks of Godozan, a famous pro wrestler in the 1950s who would often defeat American wrestlers and raise the Japanese people's spirits. He wants Calamari to sit in for all the chaos and evil facing Japan today. Calamari won't do it, however - he wants to be loved. The manager laughs at the idea of people ever loving such a monster, but he's quickly proven wrong.

Miyako is Taguchi's fiancee, though she once went out with Kan. When she hears that Calamari may be Kan, she runs to him and, after some hesitation and Taguchi's rejection of her, they rekindle their relationship. Much like Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, sex is a big no no for Calamari, and after a love scene (yes, that's right, a human & squid love scene), he is transformed back into the ailing Kan. Only an intense amount of therapy at the temple can cleanse him of his sins and allow him to become the squid yet again.


Meanwhile, Taguchi is so obsessed with trying to defeat Kan that he follows Kan's manager to Pakistan to train. When he returns on the day of their big match, he is now an octopus! Yes, that's right, with Kan now cleansed of his sins and Taguchi transformed, our big wrestling match is amongst two cephalopods! This is as glorious as you might expect, and is made even more so by the fantastic announcer who fills the commentary with seafood related puns. It's made even better than that by Miyako wearing an outfit highly reminiscent of Adrian in Rocky and, as you might expect, Calamari is the winner, and he calls for Miyako at the end before they embrace.

While you might think that's the end of our story, no, we've actually got a bit more to go. While out shopping with Miyako, Calamari admits to her that he never knew his father. Shortly afterward, he's attacked by a giant boxer squilla (that's a type of shrimp), and a new match is scheduled. Taguchi plays his Apollo Creed role expertly by helping to train Calamari to face the squilla, whose punch is said to be deadly.

We once more enjoy a giant monster match, this one cephalopod vs crustacean, but this time, the squilla is so strong that Calamari is overcome by fear and transforms back into Kan. But the crowd begins to cheer for him and he summons up enough courage to pull off the monster's arms and defeat him. Once beaten, the hard shell falls off the crustacean, revealing Calamari's old manager inside. He is none other than the legendary wrestler Godozan, and he tells both Kan and Taguchi that he is their father. After a manly set of slaps from all parties, the three embrace in tears. As if that touching moment wasn't enough icing on this cake, the epilogue shows us that healthy human Kan and Miyako now have a child - and it's a bouncing baby squid!

The film isn't perfect. The manager of Super Japan Pro Wrestling completely repeats himself in two separate scenes that are largely unnecessary, and while the premise is already ridiculous, I don't think we needed that extra bit of coincidence in having all the major players in this movie be related to each other. The octopus vs. squid fight feels like a perfect climax, so you're left shaking your head for a bit while the movie goes on until the squilla finally shows up. I also suspect that there's a lot of Japanese-specific references and cameos here that are going to fly over the heads of most non-Japanese viewers. But I'm totally willing to overlook all of that for hilarious scenes like watching a man in a squid suit walk in silhouette in front of a sunset while sad music plays, or watch him buy groceries while the cashier trembles giving him his change. This movie isn't "so bad it's good," it's so cheesy that it's fantastic.


Noel

I had never heard of this film before Angie suggested adding it to the schedule. Even checking out the trailer didn't prepare me for what was in store. It's a wrestler who just so happens to be a squid. Not even that, but a foam rubber squid with independently rolling animatronic eyes who looks like he stepped off the set of a late 80s Super Sentai show as the quickly manufactured villain who was trounced that week. I was ready for an SNL sketch, a one-note joke dragged on and on and on to the point where it would vastly outlast the charm of its initial chuckle.

I was wrong.

Where this film succeeds is not through its absurdity - of which it has plenty - but through its sincerity as it treats the abnormal as, if not normal, at least oddly plausible. How does Kan'ichi turn into Calamari? Simply through control gained by training and meditation. How does he win over the public? Through refusing to throw matches for show and winning on his own honest ability. Why do people stop and stare at him as he walks down the sidewalks with a shopping basket tucked under his tentacle? Not because he's a squid, but because he's a famous squid, who's rapidly flocked for autographs and congratulations when even squid vendors learn they have nothing to fear from his current form.

There's most certainly many a trope here. Stripped of its bizarre additions, you have a combination of a fighter returning from years in training (Tony can probably think of a better example than I) mixed with the Rocky story of the underdog taking on the current champion. As with Apollo Creed, the first match with Taguchi ends with an upset (don't correct me, I know Apollo won in the first, but through an upset), leading us to the big rematch. Following that rematch, where our hero's victory is absolute, Calamari has to deal with the distractions of fame before "Clubber" Lang shows up in the form of a boxing prawn shrimp squilla. Suddenly our hero is facing doubts and losing his trainer, but forging a new friendship with his former foe, leading to his next big climactic battle. I'm not so much surprised they worked not one, not two, but three Rocky films into a single parody, as I am they didn't push 20 minutes further with a Russian sea horse muttering "I will break you."


Without the costumes, this film wouldn't have worked. At all. It would have been rote, exposed its limited budget (the fact it's shot on video is especially apparent in hand-held shots), and the stiff dialogue would be groan worthy. By adding the absurd bent, they save it without heavily changing it. There are extra elements like the monks and the additional seafood combatants, but instead of going completely over-the-top and losing control of itself, they only let it poke its head over that edge but go no further, keeping it anchored and letting the trope-heavy script and absurdist elements play off one another to make for a surprisingly charming, delightful, and engaging character piece.

I will agree with Angie that it maybe goes a hair too far in the end, with the squilla/promoter not only turning out to be a legendary wrestler from the sport's birth in Japan, but that all three shape-shifting combatants are able to do so because they share the same bloodline. It's not so much that it's ridiculous, but by explaining things they way they do, they kinda cheapen it. I like it better when they turn into seafood just because they can, with Calamari triggering an escalation that inspires his opponent to go cephalopod as well, and that the squilla is just some random challenger in a new era of sports where such ridiculous transformations and pairings in the ring have now become possible. It doesn't need to be wrapped up in a pretty little bow that explains everything, especially when such explanation comes completely out of the blue.

But that aside, I really quite enjoyed this flick. Not just because of wonderful moments like Calamari's wound meditation pose, or the announcer with a soda can stuck to his forehead, or the surprise twist following the tentacled disco-light love scene with Miyako, or the way a seafood chef keeps complementing Calamari for his tasty complexion, or the rhythmically inspiring training montage, or how half the matches truly are two half-blind guys covered in foam rubber bumping into one another in what might have been choreographed at some point, but now amounts to little more than hysterical flailing... no, I liked this film because it had heart. It cared about its characters and their journeys, silly and cliched though they may be, and thus made me care as well. I was rooting for Calamari to prove himself in the ring. And for Miyako to reclaim her long-lost love. And for Taguchi to come to terms with his defeats (their refusal to make him an easy bad guy were appreciated). And for the young monks to get the old monk to smile.

This movie made me smile, warmed my heart, inspired many a laugh, and had me rooting for a man in a foam-rubber squid costume. It's a winner.


Tony

Before I begin my review, I feel compelled to make the following promise to our readers:

I hereby pledge that I will not make any bad puns relating to fish, fishing, or seafood in this review. No matter how tempted I may be, I won’t take the bait... Damn!

Reeling It In

I managed to hook... Damn!... a gently used copy of The Calamari Wrestler from Amazon for under $2.00. On the cover, an obviously fictitious publication called The New York Times declares “A cross between The Muppets and Godzilla.” I can’t even fathom... What? Damn!... the weirdness that awaits, so, without hesitation, I pop it in.

Fishticuffs

I was surprised to learn that The Calamari Wrestler is about a wrestling calamari. I’m being serious here. I figured the title was probably some sophisticated metaphor far too clever for the likes of me to grasp. So imagine my relief when, five minutes in, an actual calamari wrestler shows up and starts beating the shit out of a guy. I was fully expecting it to be two and a half hours with Marcel Marceau in a Parisian cafe doing a pantomime of a fish in the throes of asphyxiation meant to represent man’s ultimate futility. When I realized this was truth in advertising, I was like “Oh, thank God! This I can understand.” Or can I? Because, even though there is a wrestling calamari (not to mention a wrestling octopus and a boxing Squilla - whatever a Squilla is), it all seems to be, yep, a sophisticated metaphor far too clever for the likes of me to understand - plus it’s in Japanese with English subtitles. That required my brain to multi-task between reading and interpreting insane visuals. I’ll do the best I can here.


I studied martial arts for a few years under a Japanese sensei and I took a single Japanese studies course in college, so I have some grounding in Japanese culture, but I have little exposure to Japanese pop culture (this includes anime, manga, and J-pop). Before I met Noel, I thought “fan service” was what those two slaves with the giant palm leaves you always see standing behind Cleopatra were doing. Indeed, most of the films from Japan that I’ve seen are the type where they have to pixelate certain “things”, so this was a whole new experience for me.

I’ll admit that I found the first ten minutes or so a bit strange, but after that, it settled in and got really strange. I understood the stuff on the margins - national pride, legacy, complicated family ties - but I still don’t know why, or how, any of these people turned into sea creatures. I just... I don’t. Maybe the how isn’t really all that important, but I’d sure like to know the why because I feel it would change the way I view the entire film. As it stands, this movie just feels weird for weird’s sake. But I’m okay with that because it’s gloriously, shamelessly, epically weird. In short: Al Yankovic ain’t got shit on The Calamari Wrestler.

It’s entirely possible the calamari stuff is just window dressing and there is no deeper meaning behind it. I say this because, strip away all of the crazy and, at its core, The Calamari Wrestler has all of the trappings of your typical American sports movie. An underfishdog, a romance, long odds. Its even got a montage (though, sadly, it’s not accompanied by an inspirational power-pop anthem). A better description by our fictitious newspaper might have been “A cross between Rocky and The Power Rangers.”

Squid Pro Quo

I’ve never done drugs, but I’ve always been curious what the effects would feel like. Now I know. The Calamari Wrestler is a movie I never would’ve watched on my own, which is what makes this project so fun. There’s a surprise around every corner, and sometimes that surprise involves wrestling sea life. Thank you for this most enjoyable oddity, Angie. It’s quite a catch... Damn!


Angie

A cross between Rocky and The Power Rangers is an excellent way to describe the film, Tony. Though it's worth saying that I hadn't seen a single Rocky film when I first watched this movie, and never liked the Power Rangers, and yet I still loved it. I still don't get most of the references, either. I'm sure the wrestler who's interviewed leading up to the big match is a popular wrestler in Japan, and I have a feeling that the guy with the soda can on his head is probably also a celebrity making a cameo. There's also the fact that none of us here even definitely know what a squilla is. But the absurdity and humor of this film works so well on its own that, as long as you're willing to sit back and enjoy the ride, you're going to have a great time.

Noel is right in that this a film that rides entirely on its concept. If there were no giant cephalopods or crustaceans, this wouldn't be a very interesting film. Much like the Rocky series it steals from, the characters are what make it interesting, and without Stallone's charm, it's the comical nature of a squid wanting to be a good man that makes it worth it. The scenes of a human Taguchi struggling to figure out how to conquer his squid foe are nowhere near as interesting as Calamari's own journey to victory.

I'm sure the main reason we don't get a full explanation as to how the men transform is because of budget. There simply isn't room for the CGI or long, extensive make up process that would be required to watch these men transform slowly. But I personally like the idea of a world where this concept is just accepted whole cloth. It adds just that extra bit of humor to the whole situation. Though I would love to know why they chose Pakistan specifically and not just some mystical Japanese mountain, or perhaps among Chinese or Tibetan monks. Yes, that would be cliche, but so is the plot, and that doesn't stop it being enjoyable.

Also, can I just say that, despite its low budget, those costumes are pretty fantastic? Sure, it's incredibly obvious that two of the tentacles are human legs, and the remaining arms that human appendages can't fit inside are left completely limp. But Calamari's eyes are just expressive enough that, when mixed with the voice acting (always put through a fabulous underwater sounding filter), you can truly tell what he's feeling at any given time.

I'm so glad you both enjoyed the film as much as I did, and that Tony rose to the challenge of reading the subtitles. Given my tastes, I'll make a pro out of him before this project is done. Honestly, when I picked the film, I wasn't sure if it was going to hold up as well as I originally remembered it being, and I'm so glad it did!


We'll be back on the 1st of November with a pick from Noel: Solarbabies (1986)


[poster]

4 comments:

Bethany the Martian said...

...Okay, I have to see this movie now.

Angie Tusa said...

We can watch it while you're here, if you'd like. :)

NoelCT said...

The bleach-blonde wrestler we see in the film is indeed a noted professional wrestler and MMA fighter named Yoshihiro Takayama. I wasn't able to find out who the "soda can on the forehead" guy is, but wouldn't be surprised if he's a Japanese comedian.

Angie Tusa said...

That's definitely one of the things I found frustrating is how the credits only mention the major players. I guess the standards are different in Japan so it's not required? But there's so much I want to know!

And now looking at Takayama's Wikipedia page I see he was in the live action movie version of Cromartie High! I loved the anime version, so I may have to track that down.