Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Calamari Wrestler

I don’t know what it is with this dude Minoru Kawasaki, but he apparently can’t stop making movies about big rubber-headed talking animals with human jobs. Prior to making Executive Koala—a sort of black comic Eric Roberts movie with no tits but with a lot more anthropomorphic bunny rabbits—he made The Calamari Wrestler, the heartwarming story of a dude who transforms himself into a giant squid so he can be a better wrestler.

Both of these movies are admirably straight-faced in their approach to this surreal subject matter. They play their storylines more or less without irony, so you actually sort of care who killed Exec Koala’s wife and why Calamari Wrestler thought morphing into a cephalopod was the way to go. The joke in the former movie is that homeboy being a koala has nothing to do with anything. It would have been the exact same movie if he was just some dude with anger management issues, only it would be way less awesome. Calamari Wrestler is different in that the squid angle is crucial to the plot. A squid, you see, is impervious to most standard wrestling moves, since he has no joints to bend in the wrong direction. Plus, you can see how having six extra limbs would come in handy when it comes to ass-kicking. That’s why other wrestlers start turning themselves into sea creatures, so Calamari has to defend himself against an octopus and some kind of boxing crawfish. The whole time this is going on, Calamari also has to win back his ex-girlfriend (the sex scene is surprisingly chaste and romantic for the culture that invented tentacle porn) and deal with the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Japanese Vince McMahon.

What I find interesting about this movie, though, is not the plot (which is really just a retread of every other inspirational sports movie from Rocky to Rad) or even the absurdity of watching a giant squid slam a giant octopus into the turnbuckle. You get used to that stuff pretty quickly, so you stop seeing Calamari as a visual joke and just see him as another character. What I find interesting is that the movie seems to be equating Japan’s love/hate relationship with monsters with their subconscious desire to break free from their culture’s pathological need for conformity. In the movie, the president of the Japanese pro wrestling federation claims that, after World War II, the flagging morale of the Japanese people was boosted by the exploits of a famous wrestling champion, whose victories became symbolic of Japan’s ability to overcome any obstacle. That’s why he wants to make Calamari throw the match against the human champion. (The fact that wrestling is always fixed is blissfully ignored.) He figures that the people will be incapable of seeing a squid wrestler as anything but a monster, a symbol of the troubles plaguing their nation, so their spirits will be lifted by seeing a normal man defeat it.

In reality, Japan’s morale was boosted after WWII not by professional wrestling, but by Godzilla. In the first Godzilla movie, he was the villain, a nuclear monstrosity that personified the destructive power of the atomic bomb and, by extension, America and the rest of the decadent West. However, a curious thing happened as the series progressed. Godzilla stopped being the villain and became the hero. He would still destroy Tokyo on a biweekly basis, but he would also defend it against other, even more destructive beasts, the thinking being that G-Zed might be a monster, but at least he’s our monster.

But what would make a hive-mentality culture like Japan champion a creature that not only never has any hope of fitting in but is quite literally out to destroy society itself? If that’s not clear evidence of a people secretly yearning to break free from normality and let their freak flag fly, I don’t know what is.

The same thing happens in The Calamari Wrestler. Rather than seeing the squid-man as a monster, they embrace him as their hero. That’s what boosts the people’s morale: not seeing a representative of the status quo defeat the monstrous anomaly, but celebrating that anomaly for the very things that make it different. In its quiet, absurd, only slightly pretentious way, The Calamari Wrestler makes the case for individuality in a society that has always openly feared and secretly respected it. I would say that getting a bunch of monks to transform you into a leotard-clad leviathan is probably pushing it, but the metaphor holds true nonetheless.

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