Well, this will be different. Because if there’s 1 thing I haven’t covered on this site before, it’s wrestling movies. I may have covered 1 Wrestlemania before, but that wasn’t a movie. This on the other hand will be different, because it’s not WWE, but is following a formula that they’ve done as far back as the 1980s, which is to star their wrestlers in movies as a means to promote the company without actually being the company – in this case, it is New Japan Pro Wrestling presenting us with a story that’s set within an alternative universe version of itself. As the title suggests, it is a kids movie that includes a pile of wrestlers who were working for New Japan (NJPW) at the time. I didn’t know if I would ever see it. But to my surprise, NJPW decided to release it internationally on their Subscription-based streaming service, NJPW World. So here it is, the film that made Hiroshi Tanahashi lose his trademark hairstyle for a whole season. This is My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler.
Set in an alternative reality where New Japan Pro Wrestling is called Lion Pro Wrestling and several stars of the 2017 NJPW product are wrestling under different names, wearing different outfits and playing different characters, our story revolves around Takashi Omura (played by NJPW legend Hiroshi Tanahashi) and his son Shota (played by child actor Kokoro Terada). 10 years before our story begins, we see Omura win “The Z-1 Climax” (based on the G1 Climax but structured as an elimination tournament rather than a round-robin style league), which was meant to propel him to superstardom…then he got injured. Fast forward to the present day and Omura has been a joke ever since, as he now wrestles as the comical heel known as “Cockroach Mask” along with his tag team partner Blue Bottle Mask (played by former IWGP Junior Heavyweight champion Ryuichi Taguchi), and as you can guess, they’re wearing masks. When Shota’s class is told to do a project on their Dads and what they do, Shota gave vague answers, as he didn’t know what his Dad actually did. When the other kids suggested that his Dad is in the Yakuza, he decides to follow his Dad to work, which leads him to an Arena…which leads to him discovering that his Dad, who he looks up to, is actually a low level villain in Pro Wrestling. Despite this, Cockroach Mask ends up being selected for the Z-1 Climax, and to Shota’s embarrassment, he leads everyone to believe that his Dad is Lion Pro Wrestling’s top guy, Dragon George (played by Kazuchika Okada).
Now to break down the joints and look at the details:
The acting is a mixed bag. The kids very much act as you would expect from kids and are more like the children from Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo than Stephen King’s IT. The wrestlers mostly played themselves I would say (within the context that Tanahashi himself is a Dad, and probably didn’t need to work too hard on his interactions with Shota). Some of the adult characters (in particular Riisa Naka as Michiko Oba, the nerdy journalist who is a Cockroach Mask fan) were a little over the top, but that’s usually quite common in Japanese comedies.
The characters were good but not great. Many-a-times they were to advance the plot, and I get it – Shota’s quite a shy kid, and clearly the smallest boy in his class – it makes sense, he’s not going to show a huge range outside of embarrassment and apprehension. Tanahashi did a very good “likeable but troubled dad” character. He knows what he has and is content with it all, but he at the same time he loves his son to the point that he would aim for the top when he realises that his reveal as Cockroach Mask is making Shota’s life difficult.
Story-wise there are 2 intertwining tales; we’ll start with Takashi Omura’s story by letting everyone know that this film is more or less the opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler. Because rather than seeing a failure who is unable to quit and has lost everything, we see a wrestler who, despite not being the top guy, has achieved the dream; wrestling 200 times a year, enjoying the work, making decent money, has a beautiful wife, a kid, and a home. What’s interesting is how the character of Omura shows parallels with Tanahashi himself (and forgive me if I go full-on “Smart-Mark Wrestling Fan” in this 1). For those who don’t know, Hiroshi Tanahashi ended up having an absolutely tremendous year in 2018, despite a history of neck injuries, knee injuries, being very literally stabbed in the back, and, at the time, a partially torn bicep. At 42 and having nothing left to prove (he was NJPW’s top guy for 10 years), fans wondered if he was already past his prime, but then he ended up having some of the matches of his entire career. Then you have Shota’s story, as he finds out the hard way that his Dad is a villain rather than a Hero, and ends up snowballing the lie that his Dad is actually Dragon George in order to impress the girl he likes (who is a fan of the Dragon). What I like about this film is how it maintains the perfect balance between Kayfabe and reality – in other words, we are presented with the wrestlers playing characters similar to their own characters in NJPW, while at the same time it manages to respect the theatre side of pro wrestling by suggesting the importance of Villains in order to make Heroes interesting. Yes, they pretend that the matches don’t have pre-determined endings, but that’s fine…because we’re watching it like a fan who is invested in what’s presented before them, and not a know-it-all…not a smart mark…However I also like how Riisa Naka’s character Michiko Oba is effectively a Smart Mark because she knows that Cockroach Mask and Takashi Omura are the same guy, and is a fan of his because of that.
The design direction is that of being set in real life, while alternating various aspects in order to get past any copyright violations. The “Lion Pro Wrestling” logo may have had the same colour scheme as the NJPW logo, but it is different enough to be get by. Everything else here is pure Japan so to speak.
The music was quite unremarkable, but not bad. Scenes were set with it, but nothing really stood out about it for me. Wrestling themes were obviously changed because the wrestlers were playing different characters, and for some scenes, it works, but perhaps wouldn’t survive as a stand alone item.
The special effects and cinematography were well done and can be compared to other wrestling movies as Fight With My Family and The Wrestler (it could be argued that there is a way to shoot wrestling in a movie).
Would I recommend My Dad Is A Heel Wrestler? If you’re a wrestling fan, I say yes. If you’re not a wrestling fan, but have children who don’t mind reading subtitles, it’s actually a good, light-hearted and cute little film. It’s a lighter watch when compared to Fight With My Family, and it’s definitely lighter than The Wrestler. For some, it might even be their introduction to pro wrestling, and as a fan of the sports-themed-theatre show that it is, I wouldn’t say that it’s a bad thing.
CGI/Special Effects: ***