‘Gachi Boy’

Wrestling between comic and tragic

by Mark Schilling

Pro wrestling gets no respect, save from the fans who love watching it, and, as schoolboys, practice its moves. I was once one of those boys, trying out head butts (learned from Bobo Brazil) and karate chops (acquired from Rikidozan) on various victims, including my little brother.

Pro wrestling is also a popular theme for Japanese and other Asian filmmakers for box-office reasons. In Japan especially, the sport has long been a big draw with top performers from Rikidozan to Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba winning mainstream recognition.

“Gachi Boy,” the second feature by 27-year-old Norihiro Koizumi, focuses not on the pros, but college kids who never got over their schoolboy (or schoolgirl) wrestling obsessions. So it’s a fun, frothy, knockabout comedy, right? Not entirely. Based on a hit play first staged by the Modern Swimmers theater company in 2004, “Gachi Boy” is also a story of superhuman persistence in the face of unimaginable loss.

Gachi Boy
Director Norihiro Koizumi
Run Time 131 minutes
Language Japanese

Being a sports movie, it has to end with a big, climatic bout, which is done without wires, CG or stunt doubles, and comes as close as possible to the bruising and bloody reality of non-staged ring fighting. Remember the championship bout in “Rocky,” when it looked as though the battered hero might end the fight with his pride restored at the cost of permanent brain damage? The “Gachi Boy” finale has the same sort of intensity and suspense.

The hero is Ryoichi Igarashi (Ryuta Sato), a genius who passed the notoriously tough Japanese bar exam while still an undergraduate law student. As the film begins, he is working up his courage to enter the ramshackle headquarters of the once-fabled school pro-wrestling club. He needn’t have worried since the club has fallen on hard times and is in desperate need of new blood. The members, including the cute manager (Asako Asaoka) and handsome club captain (Chihiro Okudera) — ring name Red Typhoon — welcome Igarashi with open arms.

They notice, though, that he has an odd habit of recording everything they say or do in a notebook or with a camera. Well, geniuses have their eccentricities, don’t they? And Igarashi is also extremely enthusiastic, practicing the routines over and over. He gets a ring name, Maririn Kamen, and makes his debut, at a bout exhibition in a shopping mall. He’s a hit with the crowd, but forgets it’s supposed to be fake and attacks his opponents for real.

His problem, we learn, is that his memory has been short-circuited by a traffic accident a year previously. He can remember everything before the accident, but everything after becomes blank after one day. Every morning he has to reintroduce himself to his teammates, his sport, his entire post-accident life.

He tries to hide this condition from his teammates, but even after he is exposed and has been warned about the danger that wrestling poses to his brain, he refuses to quit. His memories don’t linger to the next day, but his wrestling does. The aches and bruises remind him (as do the notebooks he keeps) that he exists in more than the present day. They have become precious to him.

As Igarashi, Sato (“Lorelei,” “Kisarazu Cats’ Eye”) starts in the shallow comic end of the pool, playing up the character’s puppy-dog eagerness and charm. Then he moves adeptly to the deeper dramatic end, without sacrificing the qualities that made the character appealing in the first place. By the time Igarashi steps into the ring, together with Red Typhoon, against his toughest-ever opponents — two blonde brothers with Greek-god bodies and sadistic impulses — he is not just another two-dimensional sports pic hero, but a fully realized figure, touched by tragedy, but refusing to be defined by it.

There are gags aplenty, some crude and obvious, some laugh-out-loud funny. But most of all, “Gachi Boy” has energy, heart — and guts. Sato and the other actors do all their own throws, falls and holds, culminating in the sweat-drenched, all-stops-out finale. Some stunts look outright dangerous, others must have been brutally exhausting to execute take after take. I half expected to see an outtake reel at the end, as in a Jackie Chan movie, showing the various injuries. Their pain, however, is our gain. You’ll come out of the theater ready to put a headlock on life.