Runtime: 144 minutes
Directors: Kim Longinotto, Jano Williams
By Darren Wadsworth
If the term “women’s wrestling,” makes you think of the glitz and glamour of the Netfix show GLOW or even the women’s divisions of American promotions such as the WWE, then “Gaea Girls,” will be a shock to your preconceptions. Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, this documentary exposes the brutal training regimes and initiations that young girls in Japan choose to face in order to earn their place performing in the hallowed ground of the squared circle.
For decades in Japan, entire organisations have been dedicated to women’s wrestling, and drawing a rabid and predominantly female fanbase. Gaea Girls is built around one of the biggest names in the history of women’s wrestling, Chigusa Nagayo. As one half of the Crush Gal’s tag team, Nagayo revolutionised wrestling, mixing face paced athleticism with a pop star persona, she became a teen idol and inspired generations of young girls to dream of becoming professional wrestlers. The documentary follows some of these girls who have come to follow in their hero Nagayo’s footsteps by enrolling in her wrestling school (or “dojo”), which will quickly and mercilessly weed out the weak.
“Directed by Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, this documentary exposes the brutal training regimes and initiations that young girls in Japan choose to face in order to earn their place performing in the hallowed ground of the squared circle.”
In an often eerie silence the camera captures the girls lives, the cramped, sparse environment of the gym that is their home. The girl’s exist on a strict regime of exercise drills, chores and training, with an almost militaristic discipline expected and respect demanded by Nagayo who is a fearsome and unforgiving teacher. Those that aren’t up to the dedication required receive no sympathy from Nagayo, who refuses to shake hands with those who quit and along with her trainers don’t even acknowledge them as they leave.
The film adopts a straight fly on the wall approach, no voiceovers, the presence of the film makers absent as they observe and focus the unfolding story of young student Takeuchi. Like many young girls, Takeuchi is drawn to the empowerment that being a wrestler offers, the chance to be glamorous, powerful and aggressive while performing in front of an audience. She comes across as shy, admits she doesn’t stand out as a person, but as a wrestler she hopes to shine and find an identity for herself. Yet to earn her place on a live show she has to go through a year long trial that to outsiders borders on abuse.
Takeuchi spends much of the film in floods of tears, shaking while being berated by her trainers. While coming across as a timid, scared girl, when she is in the ring sparring she explodes with energy, screaming as she charges and flys at her trainers in matches. Yet her efforts are never enough, as she is constantly derided, mocked and physically punished during these training matches. In one of the most frightening moments, Takeuchi is being roughed up by her trainer Meiko Satomura and has her head snapped back by a full on drop kick to the head. With blood pouring from her jaw and tears running down her face she is forced to stand and be lectured on her poor performance.
Yet while other girls are quitting (one runs away in the middle of the night, rather than face the wrath of Chigusa and tell her she is leaving), Takeuchi is desperate to succeed and her drive keeps her coming back again and again, taking more beatings, receiving no sympathy or encouragement. A frightening student vs master dynamic unfolds, that were it not for the intense realism you’d be forgiven for mistaking it as a pro wrestling storyline. When failing tests (where a student is judge by their performance in a series of matches), a disappointed Chigusa repeatedly slaps Takeuchi around the head, calling her an idiot and loser and demanding she leaves the dojo. A distraught and battered Takeuchi follows her mentor begging to be given a second chance. She does get a second chance, but has to prove herself in a match against Chigusa, who bullies Takeuchi and refuses to cooperate in the match shrugging off her kicks and offence.
“The film adopts a straight fly on the wall approach, no voiceovers, the presence of the film makers absent as they observe and focus the unfolding story of young student Takeuchi.”
When filming Longinotto admitted to being distressed at the treatment they were witnessing, with Williams having at one point had to step outside, unable to handle what she was watching. Interestingly the film never addresses the predetermined and staged nature of professional wrestling, (Japanese wrestling is far less open about it’s secrets than it’s American counterparts) and in a way it’s largely irrelevant here. What the girls are going through, the physical pounding on their bodies, the mental drain on their emotions are very real, as are their desires and drive.
There are shades of “Whiplash,” (2014), in Takeuchi’s ordeal at the hands of her seemingly uncaring mentor. The comparison is ever more so than in the conclusion, where despite being paraded as a failure in a humiliating ceremony in front of the other students, Takeuchi is judged to have passed her tests and is allowed to debut in front of a live audience. Chigusa in a revealing interview explains how her cruelty in training is an expression of tough love, not only preparing them for the physical toll required to survive as a wrestler, but that her intention is to be hated by her students, instilling in them the fire and will, motivating them to succeed to spite her. It’s revealed that this is how she was trained by her father and with great glee she brags how she made more of herself than he ever did.
“As fascinating as Gaea Girls is, there are violent moments that will make the audience flinch and there is a question of where the line between tough coaching and out and out abusive bullying lays.”
The morality of the methods will no doubt divide the audience, and cause bemusement at the lengths the trainees go through to attain the level of performance expected. Yet it’s worth noting that this system on display at Chigusa’s gym is responsible for producing performers at a world renowned level of excellence. The pride of the culture and strive for perfection in training in Japan, has seen it’s first year professionals displaying skills years ahead of other wrestlers around the world.
As fascinating as Gaea Girls is, there are violent moments that will make the audience flinch and there is a question of where the line between tough coaching and out and out abusive bullying lays. However, the joy on Takeuchi’s face at the end as she finally gets to perform and take her place in a counter culture that strikes against the conservative society and expectations of women, leads to the conclusion that to her the work and ordeal was worth it.
I’d like to dedicate this review to the memory of Hana Kimura, a 23 year old wrestler who took her own life this week after being the victim of online bullying and harassment.