Attending the New York International Children’s Film Festival has been something of a tradition for myself, and many of my reviews over the years on this blog have come from it. Due to COVID-19, NYICFF 2021 is a virtual festival, with individual tickets and two all-access passes available at extremely reasonable prices.
As someone who loves cartoons, my usual focus at NYICFF is on animated features including but not limited to those from Japan. For whatever reason, there’s no anime this year, but we’ve got the next best thing: a live-action film about Japanese pro wrestling. My Dad is a Heel Wrestler stars actual New Japan Pro-Wrestling veteran megastar Tanahashi Hiroshi as a washed-up wrestler named Omura Takashi whose son Shota discovers that Takashi is a “bad guy” called Cockroach Mask. The film was previously temporarily available on NJPW’s own streaming service, but I had missed my chance to see it then, so I’m glad that NYICFF brought me this opportunity.
My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is based on a Japanese children’s picture book, and by amazing coincidence, I actually happened upon a copy while at Bookoff years ago before the film was announced. Both versions follow the same basic premise described above, but the difference between 32 pages of large text with illustrations and a feature-length movie inevitably means changes and additions. In this case, the film is fleshed out with a greater exploration of both Takashi and Shota’s feelings about Takashi’s role as Cockroach Mask. For Takashi, his passion for wrestling is juxtaposed with the knowledge that his heelish gimmick is the only way he can continue his career. Shota meanwhile has to reconcile his image of his father as a caring man with the scheming and cheating he sees in the ring.
A larger cast of characters—Takashi’s wife Shiori, Shota’s classmates, Takashi’s fellow wrestlers, and a hardcore fangirl who lives and breathes pro wrestling—also help to establish a greater world. The fangirl, Michiko, speaks to the fact that Japanese wrestling has managed to pull in a serious female following in the past ten years (known affectionately as pujoshi), and her love of Cockroach Mask/Omura is a reflection of Tanahashi’s own popularity among the ladies.
The film does a great job of showing Shota’s complex emotions from his perspective as a small child, and how Takashi struggles with the desire to both be a dad his son can be proud of while doing what he can to extend his career in spite of chronic injuries. Tanahashi playing an older wrestler is naturally in his wheelhouse, so this role isn’t exactly challenging his acting range, but he pulls the character off quite convincingly.
One of the main messages of the film, as stated by Michiko, is that pro wrestling is about more than winning and losing. Much like that one scene in Wreck-It Ralph, it’s about Shota realizing that just because Takashi is a bad guy “doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.” Curiously, however, in the world of My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, the gimmicks are fake but the actual wrestling is real—a kind of semi-kayfabe where wins and losses are legitimate but the wrestlers’ personas themselves are primarily performance. The film uses a lot of other NJPW stars to fill out the ranks, including Okada Kazuchika as the world champion, and the feeling I get is that a film with so many actual wrestlers wants to maintain some semblance of the “realness” of pro wrestling even in a fully acknowledged fictional setting like a movie. Speaking of wrestlers, I was actually most impressed by the acting of Taguchi Ryusuke, who plays Cockroach Mask’s henchman Blue Bottle. Taguchi in recent years has been more of a comedy wrestler in NJPW, and his ability to be serious and silly is a great asset to this film.
While the film uses a lot of wrestling terminology, My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler is a very accessible film that has a lot of interesting things to say about many different topics—from aging, to doing what it takes to keep a dream alive, to how theatricality is in itself a valuable quality that brings people excitement. From beginning to end, it feels like a production where everyone involved both respect the subject matter of pro wrestling and want to tell a heartfelt story to which anyone can relate.