Friday, March 20, 2009

REVIEW: Rikidōzan


Released: 2004

Song Hae-sung

Sol Kyung-gu
Miki Nakatani
Tatsuya Fuji

Masato Hagiwara
Masakatsu Funaki

Running time: 137 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

In 1953 Japan was in desperate need of a hero. After the national shame of their surrender that ended WW2, and the 7 years of back breaking reconstruction and poverty during the Occupation the Japanese spirit was at an historic low, but a year after MacArthur and the Allies relinquished the dreams and imagination of Japan were captured by one man: superstar pro-wrestler Rikidōzan, 5 ft 9 and 240 lbs of bulging muscle with a rakish smile that said, "Not only will I be just as good as you Yankee wrestlers, but I'll beat you at your own game." Billed as the villain when he wrestled in the U.S. Rikidōzan was a national hero in Japan. At the height of his fame in the 1950s and early 60s millions of Japanese would be glued to their TV sets to watch his fights. "Here's one of us, ware ware Nihonjin," his fans must have thought at the time, "who's not afraid to stand up to the Americans." Strange then that Rikidōzan was in fact Korean, and thus the subject of Korean director Song Hae-seong's 2004 film "Yeokdosan (Rikidōzan)".

Sol Kyung-gu stars as Kim Sin-nak (Rikidōzan's real name), a hulking young man who in the hope of using his natural strength and size to pull himself out of poverty leaves his home in Japanese occupied Korea in 1940 to come to Nagasaki to join a nishonoseki-beya (sumo stable). It would be very tough going for Kim though. Regular beatings and cruel pranks by his Japanese stablemates and prejudice against his foreign heritage by the sumo authorities left him deeply frustrated. Even with the support of his Japanese wife Aya (Miki Nakatani) and the financial backing of the wealthy Mr. Kanno (Tatsuya Fuji) Kim, now dubbed Rikidōzan, only ever achieved third-ranking status as a sumo wrestler. By 1950 he needed an out, and he found one during what is portrayed in the film as a bar fight with pro-wrester Toshiyuki "Harold" Sakata (played by real-life pro-wrestler Keiji "The Great Muta" Mutoh). Sakata, famous for playing the role of Odd Job in the James Bond movie "Goldfinger" was so impressed by Rikidōzan's strength that he invited him to his gym and it's there that the then 26-year-old sumo wrestler would discover his destiny. As Sakata explains to him in the film "Sumo is a sport just for Japan. Pro-wrestling is for the entire world," and it was that world that Rikidōzan wanted to conquer; so cutting off his top knot with a kitchen knife he tells his wife and his manager that he's heading to America to master this new sport.

It's here that the weaknesses of "Rikidōzan" begin to show, but it's not through any fault of the actors. Sol Kyung-gu does a great job carrying the film (and delivering mostly all of his lines in Japanese). His hyper-athletic and charismatic performance as Rikidōzan is a joy to watch, and he manages to makes us sympathize with Rikidōzan'sa overweening desire for success and occasional use of bribery and trickery to get it. Tatsuya Fuji brings his usual relaxed and assured style to the role of Rikidōzan's manager, but poor Miki Nakatani is relegated to the role of the doormat wife that we see so often in these epic portrayals of cultural icons: a woman who stays by the genius/ hero's side through abandonment, abuse, adultery and general bad behaviour. It's that cliche, and so many others that weighs down any fun or entertainment that you think would come from the life story of one of the world's most famous pro-wrestlers.

The arch of Rikidōzan's career hits all the bio-pic beats. There are the montage sequences of "Rikidōzan conquers America" headlines splashing across the screen, sequences that I'm assuming are due to budget restraints and lack of Western actors, but that come across as terribly half-baked. There's the titanic 1953 tag-team match between Rikidōzan and Masahiko Kimura versus Ben and Mike Sharpe set to a sweeping orchestral score and loving slow-motion cinematography (which is actually pretty stirring). Of course there's the inevitable will to power and hubris (Rikidōzan repeatedly refers to himself in the third person) which brings about our hero's downfall and Rikidōzan's tragic death at the age of 39 from peritonitis caused by a knife wound inflicted by a yakuza thug. All those things are there, but I couldn't help wondering where the flash, the dazzle, the campiness and the fun of what isn't just a sport, but "sports entertainment" was. In it's place Song gives us an overly serious and overlong film. The one saving grace of "Rikidōzan" is that it at least acts as a good starting point for anyone interested in learning about one of Japan's most important pop culture icons of the 20th-century.

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