At first, I really wasn’t sure what someone who isn’t already a wrestling fan would get out of the 2018 family comedy My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler (or Papa wa Warumono Champion). But I am already a wrestling fan, and I pretty much immediately thought it was the cutest shit I’ve ever seen. The kids’ book adaptation follows tiny adorable child Shota Omura (Kokoro Teruda) as he discovers that his super-strong, super-kind, super-handsome father is in fact the dastardly wrestler Cockroach Mask!
I haven’t seen much more than a few scans of the source material, but it’s easy to map Shota’s movie storyline onto the usual emotional structure of a picture book. Shota learns of his father’s job, is mortified, and then when he lets slip at school that his dad is a wrestler, ends up stumbling into the lie that he is the son of babyface champion Dragon George (Kazuchika Okada). The truth comes out and then Shota has to contend with his new identity as the son of a heel, eventually embracing it.
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This story is fleshed out with the perspectives of Shota’s dad, over-the-hill ace-turned-masked-heel Takashi Omura (Hiroshi Tanahashi) trying to make his son proud by winning the Z-1 Climax, and wrestling otaku journalist Michiko Oba (Riisa Naka) who is thrilled that her favorite wrestler Cockroach Mask is finally newsworthy enough to be written about. The result is a surprisingly lovely film about the synthesis of childhood dreams with the crushing blows of reality. And wrestling. Honestly, there’s a lot of wrestling. I cried. A LOT. Because I am kind of a cornball.
In the world of My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler, kayfabe is real (which raises a lot of questions about details like Cockroach Mask’s “fourth dimensional trash barrel,” but I don’t know very much about physics). Here, professional wrestling is a legitimate contest, with matches won by skill, ingenuity, and cunning. Still, it’s made immediately clear that Cockroach Mask’s heel behavior is limited to the ring. He is a heel because he is too injured to win honestly, but also because being a heel rules. When Cockroach Mask stan and journalist Michiko “smartens up” Shota to how wrestling works, her explanation for his father’s actions is that wrestling needs heels to keep it exciting. She isn’t wrong!
It’s hard to judge acting ability of charismatic performers I am already attached to in a language I don’t speak. That said, it seemed to me that Tanahashi did a solid job in his role. It might help that he’s essentially playing a version of himself if his career had gone differently, but the warmth and emotional vulnerability he was able to convey actually exceed a lot of what I’ve seen him do in the ring or on promos. Ryusuke Taguchi, as Cockroach Mask’s partner Blue Bottle Mask, was also weirdly compelling.
The movie was very clearly made in cooperation with New Japan Pro Wrestling, featuring fictionalized company Lion Pro Wrestling, a summer wrestling tournament called the Z-1 Climax, and New Japan talent exclusively, even down to the referees. New Japan wrestlers Tomohiro Ishii, Hirooki Goto, Satoshi Kojima and YOSHI-HASHI play themselves. Okada’s Dragon George, Togi Makabe’s Sweet Gorilla Maruyama and Trent Baretta’s Joel Hardy (the Phantasmagoric Speed Star) are all slightly different versions of the actual wrestlers. Dragon George’s finisher is even a Rainmaker called the “Dragon Maker.” Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, KUSHIDA, Shota Umino and Katsuya Kitamura (who has since retired from wrestling) are all seen in the background of wrestling matches and training sessions. Even Tetsuya Naito and Hiromu Takahashi make cameos as bar patrons.
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There is a lot of wrestling, including a climactic match between Dragon George and Takashi Omura that borrows heavily from Okada and Tanahashi’s fantastic rivalry. A lot of the pleasure I had in watching My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler was based in my familiarity with and love for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Seeing Hiroshi Tanahashi as a beleaguered muscular dad give a tired old lady a piggyback ride within the first five minutes of a movie so we know what a great guy he is rules. It’s not a very subtle movie, but it’s about pro wrestling and adapted from a picture book, so it works. I mean, Shota’s class at school seems to exclusively talk about what their dreams are for when they grow up, hammering the movie’s themes home. The result is still tremendously effective. Like any picture book, it has a lesson, and like any good picture book, the lesson isn’t necessarily the one you expect.
Shota’s emotional journey from blind adoration of a dad he doesn’t know very much about to disillusionment and disappointment to embracing his dad for who he is? Fuck! That’s pretty potent stuff! Watching Takashi’s emotional journey from embarrassment at no longer being on top of the game to trying to relive his glory days to embracing his own complexity? These are universal processes we all more or less have to go through. Who among us doesn’t ask ourselves if we can reconcile the realities of who we are and what we’re capable of with who we’ve always wanted to be? My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler is a movie about wrestling, but more than that, it’s a disarmingly moving, genuinely sweet movie about how great it is to be seen, understood and loved by the people we care about.