The silver linings of the coronavirus can be counted on one hand, maybe even one finger.
For me, it’s discovering a Japanese movie I didn’t know existed.
Though I gave up on WWE years ago, I became a full-fledged fan of New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) in early 2017 and signed up for its NJPWworld streaming service. While my initial favorite Kenny Omega has moved on to All Elite Wrestling in the U.S., I remain a loyal NJPW fan. It’s one of the reasons I was so keenly aware of coronavirus before it landed on American shores, as the company shut down live events weeks before we did here.
Since the virus hit, NJPW has been trying to provide unique content to fans to keep them entertained through quarantines. On April 4, they added a movie to their archives, entitled My Dad is a Heel Wrestler.
I didn’t know this movie existed. It is now my favorite pro wrestling movie of all time.
The movie stars Hiroshi Tanahashi as the lead character, playing the role of the evil Cockroach Mask, and the story revolves around his young son discovering that his dad is a heel wrestler. On its face, the premise sounds ridiculous and, frankly, worried me.
How would they approach pro wrestling? How would they treat a heel gimmick? But I had nothing to fear.
You first must realize that the Japanese, in general, treat pro wrestling with much more respect than American audiences view the clown show Vince McMahon has delivered for the past few decades. It’s about honor and fighting spirit in Japan, not “sports entertainment” or whatever buzzword WWE feels like using in a particular week.
Just from that, the movie felt different than any U.S. pro wrestling movie. While the movie never outwardly admits that pro wrestling is scripted, they make it clear that “bad guys” exist because it would be no fun if everyone was a hero. And while the outcomes of matches aren’t explicitly outed as being predetermined, it’s still clear that the actions of certain wrestlers can upset people in charge if they don’t do as they’re instructed.
The heart of the movie though is about the relationship between a father and a son. Tanahashi’s character is heartbroken when his son discovers his true work and is disappointed. Likewise, Shota, his son, struggles with the realization of what his Dad actually does, and is forced to lie to his classmates about it. The child actor playing Shota, it should be said, could not have been cast any more perfectly.
The most poignant moment in the film, of which there are many, is the wife explaining that wrestling is the “passion” of the father. It logically shares why grown men do something that is mocked by so many who do not like or get pro wrestling.
As a pro wrestling fan my entire life, the movie made me proud. I know that sounds corny, but there are so few moments as a pro wrestling fan where you feel proud to be one. Especially here in the United States, it’s usually embarrassing to admit you like it. As a kid in grade school — after the Hulk Hogan era and before the Stone Cold/Rock era — I kept my fandom secret after being mocked by classmates for liking it in the 5th grade, so I uniquely understood Shota’s motivation.
What really makes this movie so great how believable Tanahashi is in the role. Known as the “Ace” of NJPW, Tanahashi is easily described to American fans as the John Cena of Japan. He’s been a beloved star for decades who is now on the tail end of his career, which matches the career arc of his character.
While it’s tough to gauge acting while reading subtitles, there was never a moment where I felt like I was watching Tanahashi instead of Cockroach Mask. The interaction with his family felt genuine and heartfelt. Other NJPW wrestlers in the movie, such as Ryusuke Taguchi as Cockroach’s heel partner or Kazuchkia Okada as the beloved champion, nail their roles to perfection. There’s also a great cameo from another NJPW star, which I won’t spoil, but will make every NJPW fan smile. Sure, they aren’t asked to stray from their normal characters all that much, but it’s different enough that it works.
In particular, Okada stands out because he simply looks like the ideal wrestling champion. If you didn’t watch pro wrestling, you would be forgiven for thinking they hired an actor to play a role. That’s simply a stroke of good luck, similar to if WWE tried to make a movie with The Rock as a champion. It would make sense to anyone, fan or not.
I can’t finish this pseudo review without mentioning how awesome the wrestling scenes are. Yes, it’s basically typical NJPW matches being filmed cinematically, but that’s what wrestling in movies should be! With the exception of the climatic scene, there are no slow motion cuts to artificially enhance the drama. The moves are legit. The matches are booked logically. It looks great on film.
Last week, I would’ve told you The Wrestler starring Mickey Rourke was by far the best movie ever made about pro wrestling. The only negative about that movie was the over the top “only in the movies” ending that rendered it a fantasy.
My Dad is a Heel Wrestler ends with a wrestling match that ends like a wrestling match should end. I won’t spoil it, except to say any pro wrestling fan will appreciate it. Not because it’s an overly happy ending. You will appreciate it because it’s an emotionally satisfying ending.
The best pro wrestling matches have always delivered that. It’s only fitting the best pro wrestling movie would too.