When Barton Fink was lured out to Hollywood to become a highly paid script whore, the formulaic 'sports picture' was his industry introduction. As the fictional playwright struggled with the format, his studio suits would argue incessantly, "(Wallace) Berry! Wrestling Picture! What do you need, a road map?" Indeed, from the earliest silents to the struggling to talkies (read: Rocky), the narrative elements for such a movie were woefully well known: take an underdog individual - in this case, a once up, now down grappler; give him a girlfriend who, once defeated, moves on to others in his skill set; provide a managerial backdrop that is self-serving, calculated, and destined to derail our hero; and finally, give him the power to magically transform into a squid in order to overcome his in the ring obstacles and...what? Wait! Squid?!?! Indeed, that's the wrinkle added by defiant director Minoru Kawasaki (Executive Koala, The World Sinks...Except Japan). With his insane The Calamari Wrestler, he re-imagines Asian superstar wrestling as a battle between big corporations and honest, hardworking seafood. The surreal results speak for themselves.
Current reigning champion Koji Tagucki has just defeated another opponent and has been handed the prized belt when...all of a sudden, a squid man steps into the ring and uses the noted Northern Light Suplex on him. This immediately gets the interest of promoters, who see a new angle for their ailing sport. It draws the attention of commentators, who swear they have seen that signature move somewhere before...and it gets the goat of pretty young Miyako. While engaged to Koji, she is sure the oversized appetizer is actually her former lover reincarnated. Soon, the press are all over the story, with the newly dubbed 'Calamari Wrestler' becoming a national obsession. While the corporate big shots hope to set up a rematch with Koji, a new threat comes along - the Squilla Boxer. This mantis shrimp with an incredibly right hook wants to challenge Calamari and win the title for himself. Naturally, our hero - and his high powered enemies - have a plan to win it themselves. And all the while, we keep wondering: who is that man inside that invertebrate body?
For its bizarro world set-up and preposterous premise, The Calamari Wrestler is actually a fairly straightforward film. Take away the man in suit stuff and you've got a former champion, presumed dead, who comes back to reclaim his title and his girl. Add in a bit of backstage intrigue as the corporate money men try to manipulate the results to make wrestling a new national obsession, as well as a revised romantic subplot and something doing with the mysterious trainer of our squared circle gladiators and the narrative would be perfect for a late period Hollywood B-movie back-up. But thanks to the decision to make the characters a combination of human and 'huh?', because director Kawasaki is batspit when it comes to achieving his aims, The Calamari Wrestler becomes its own unusual conceit. It bounces off the ropes even when the story is not set in the wrestling ring and seems to be saying something about Japan's sports culture without actually coming out and being critical.
There are excellent little touches all throughout the film: a weird progression of ring announcers (including one wearing a beer can hat!); a few famous faces from wrestling's past; the intrepid, if often misguided, investigative reporters; the final battle royale between squid, squilla, and...octopus?!?! For his part, Kawaski applies the genre basics and then blows them up with his often inconsistent originality. In fact, the movie is really made up of several stunt set-pieces with limited deranged dramatics thrown in for good measure. It's kind of like watching Kaiju Big Battle with even more backstory. Then, when viewed through the prism of Japan's obsession with Godzilla, Gamera, and all manner of hackneyed F/X creatures, another layer of lunacy is uncovered. Kawasaki seems to be making fun of a people who become fanatical over something which is obviously fake and forced on them by friendly, faceless mega-conglomerates.
Unlike Executive Koala, which wants to undermine the serial psycho killer concept or The World Sinks... which is a disaster movie in mannerism only, The Calamari Wrestler is just that - guys going at it while wearing hokey Halloween costumes. Anything else has to be read into it, and the allusions appear to be written in runny squid ink. Not a lot is done with the oddness of having a man-animal in the ring and the moves are all leftovers from the WWF. Kawasaki keeps things moving, never really getting bogged down in minor melodramatics. Yes, the in ring contests can grow dull after a while, no matter how frenzied the announcer gets, and we do wish more would be made out of Koji jealousy and his desire to turn creature too. Still, with an unsane premise that couldn't possible deliver on its promise, The Calamari Wrestler does a good job at just that. We don't expect Shakespeare, or Fink, just goofiness and a good time. We end with an ample supply of both - at least, for a while.
Looking like it was shot on video and keeping some of that indistinct haze, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image of The Calamari Wrestler is colorful, if unclear. Sometimes, the arena sequences look positively muddy. In other instances, the exterior shots have a nice sense of clarity. This is definitely not a high definition production. Details are scarce and everything has a low budget feel to it. Still, for the rarity and oddness of the title, the image looks decent.
Nothing really amazing to report here. The Dolby Digital Stereo mix keeps the Japanese language only track front and center (the English subtitles are excellent) while music and other ambient noises are thrust to the back. Sometimes, the sound gets a bit chaotic, but overall, the aural aspect of the release is more than acceptable.
If you have the original release of The Calamari Wrestler that came out on DVD from Pathfinder Home Entertainment a while back, there is no reason to double dip. This disc contains the same bonus features - a making-of, an image gallery, a collection of trailers and promotional spots, and a music video. Nothing new, nothing novel. While the added content is fascinating, the lack of freshness is disconcerting.
As the one that "started it all" for Kawasaki and his now growing American cult following, The Calamari Wrestler is indeed something - something weird, something unusual, something indescribable...and something a bit disappointing. Let's put it this way - it's no Neko Râmen Taishô (the story of a cartoon cat puppet that wants to be a top noodle chef). Still, for all its post-bong hit fun and silliness, it earns a Recommended rating. Sometimes, a concept can only be successful in theory. In other instances, practice outshines plan. In the case of The Calamari Wrestler, we get exactly what we anticipate, nothing more and nothing less. After all, it is a wrestling picture at heart. What, do I have to draw you a road map?
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