My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler (Papa wa warumono chanpion)

Japan (2018) Dir. Kyôhei Fujimura

Hopefully, regular readers of this site will have picked up enough wrestle speak from the many WWE reviews I’ve posted making some of the upcoming references easier to follow, though when it comes to Japanese pro-wrestling things are a lot different which is why a film like this could only be made in the US if it were set in before the 1980’s.

Takashi Omura (Hiroshi Tanahashi) was a popular pro-wrestler until a knee injury forced him out of the spotlight. In the ten years since, Takashi has married hairdresser Shiori (Yoshino Kimura) and had a young son, Shota (Kokoro Terada). Shota has always admired his dad for being big and strong but never knew what his job was and after being teased by his classmates, he vows to find out.

Shota follows Takashi to a building which turns out to be a wrestling arena. Inside Shota sees champion Dragon George (Kazuchika Okada) facing the evil Cockroach Mask. When he strikes a pose, Shota realises it is Takashi under the mask, confused as to why his dad is being so nasty. At school, Shota reveals his dad is a pro-wrestler but rather than say the hated Cockroach Mask, he lets them believe it is Dragon George instead.

Based on a picture book series by Masahiro Itabashi & Hisanori Yoshida My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler stands out from other wrestling related films on a number of levels. For a start it uses actual pro-wrestlers as the leads and not actors, so the in-ring segments are credible for a change. Secondly, whilst it operates under the pretence that wrestling is a genuine sport, it offers a fresh perspective by viewing it through Shota’s eyes.

Usually, sports dramas are about the athlete themselves and their journey, whether it is rising to stardom, overcoming an injury, or making a comeback. Here this plot is a catalyst for looking at the effect it has on the athlete’s family, in this case a young child unable to understand the good guy/bad guy nuance of wrestling as an entertainment form.

It is important to note that in Japan, pro-wrestling is taking as seriously as a sport as any other in mainstream press coverage. Whether the fans are like us here in the west and read insider gossip so they know all of the backstage news and what is real and what isn’t I can’t say, but whilst they are entertained, their emotional investment is genuine.

Even though there are comedy promotions in Japan like DDT, and many characters are larger than life, the industry is still run like any other sporting body with respect and honour being its chief principles. So for a young lad like Shota, it would be heartbreaking to see the man his adores acting in a manner that doesn’t become him and goes against how he has been brought up.

At least Takashi isn’t a Yakuza, which some kids speculate he is, but it might have been easier for Shota if he were. But because he doesn’t correct the others about Dragon being his father, Shota is complicit in digging his own social grave. It’s not enough his friend Mana (Maharu Nemoto) dreams of marrying Dragon, Shota has to keep up the pretence of booing Cockroach Mask at the matches for fear of giving himself away.

Meanwhile, Takashi is perplexed by Shota’s sudden rejection of him but it is magazine writer and wrestling nerd Michiko Oba (Riisa Naka), herself a big Takashi/Cockroach Mask fan, who makes Shota understand the need for villains in wrestling. Having got Shota back onside, Takashi is given a shot to compete in the annual Z-1 tournament  and decides to win it for Shota, but can his knee hold up to hitting his Fly High again?

You don’t need to be a wrestling fan to enjoy this film, since it keeps things fairly simple for the neophyte, whilst accommodating the hardcore fans with the references. Lion Pro Wrestling promotion is a direct riff on New Japan Pro Wrestling (right down to the logo), so everything at their disposal is genuine NJPW for added credence and realism.

Joining Tanahashi and Okada under fictional aliases are Togi Makabe, Ryusuke Taguchi, Hirooki Goto, Satoshi Kojima, and Trent Baretta, with cameos from KUSHIDA, Tetsuya Naito, Hiromu Takahashi, Manabu Nakanishi and Yuji Nagata. Referee Red Shoes Unno is also on hand as is announcer Shinpei Nogami to complete the package.

New Japan fans will know that Tanahashi vs. Okada has been one of the biggest feuds of the past few years, so it was the right match to have here in putting on something believable within the main narrative and because of how well they work together. The storyline behind the match also mirrors the real life one with Tanahashi as New Japan’s ace being forced aside by the younger Okada.

This isn’t just a film about flying the flag for pro-wrestling or even exposing/protecting the business, there are some vital life lessons to be learned from this. Some might find the central theme of Shota’s lies backfiring on him a little ironic in a wrestling setting but this is countered by the dilemma of Shota as the son of a man he is proud of that his friends are being conditioned to hate.

Whilst Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Cena, and Dave Bautista are representing wrestling in Hollywood, the New Japan crew make a surprisingly decent account for themselves as actors, though only Tanahashi is stretched beyond his busman’s holiday role. Young Kokoro Terada is likeable as the conflicted Shota, whilst Riisa Naka overdoes it a little with excitable comedy as Michiko.

My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler is a nicely made, uplifting film with a pertinent, well-intended message to entertain both fans and non-fans of wrestling whilst both camps should be able to agree it is a refreshing change to see wrestling treated as anything other a joke for the first time in a while.