Why ‘My Dad is a Heel Wrestler’ is a perfect quarantine movie

NJPW, Hiroshi Tanahashi (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)
NJPW, Hiroshi Tanahashi (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images) /

Hi. Things are weird, and boring, and frightening, and depressing, and we’re all uncertain about when it might end.

For some of us, daily life is conditioned by quarantine and/or social distancing, and we’re constantly finding ways to fill new little voids. My Dad is a Heel Wrestler is a really, really nice movie and a good way to fill at least a few of those voids.

If you’re like me, you’ve spent the last month or so under shelter-in-place orders slowly going insane. NJPW has done a stunning job at keeping new and improved content coming onto NJPWWORLD and I was particularly excited to see a high quality version of My Dad is a Heel Wrestler with official English subtitles announced as part of their ‘NJPW Together’ collection.

I’ve been looking for this movie for a long time. A bootleg copy went around Twitter for a while with some unofficial subtitles, but I never got around to watching it. Now it’s literally one of my favorite movies of all time. The roles played by New Japan’s wrestlers are all clearly well-cast with some great cameos — no one misses a beat.

Real-life NJPW Ace Hiroshi Tanahashi stars as evil masked wrestler Cockroach Mask (real name: Takashi Omura,) a good bad guy who struggles with the twin misfortunes of an old injury and his quickly dwindling wrestling career while navigating his relationship with his son, who has suddenly discovered his wrestling identity and kind of hates him for it.

The premise is cute, full of classic wrestling motifs and morals, and seemingly without any more harrowing concepts that you might find in other sports movies. At first glance it seems rudimentary, but like all simple stories told very well it surprised me in the end and made me cry in front of my roommates.

The beginning of this movie, actually, is one of my favorite moments — it’s a perfect setup. It’s a cinematic presentation of what looks like a typical match between Tanahashi’s pre-heel wrestling persona versus Makabe, who plays a wrestler named ‘Sweet Gorilla Maruyama.’ The best way I can describe the way the matches are filmed is they look like how you see them in your head.

Someone mistakenly described this movie to me as taking place in a world where wrestling is real, so to speak. It’s not quite that, but it shows wrestling and the experience of wrestling through the eyes of a child, which is close. It brings a particularly poignant and nostalgic tone to the sport that we know as adults.

Especially for Shota, who through the course of the movie is introduced and familiarized with the scene. Despite his father being a pro wrestler – a fact that was to be kept secret from him until he was older – Shota stumbled into his first show with his little backpack and a mixture of awe and bewilderment, which is highly relatable.

The entire movie is this central focus around Shota’s initial rejection and shame at the realization that his dad is a heel wrestler — the bad guy. He takes in the crowd booing his father, cheering attacks on his weak spots, cheering his demise. He listens to how much his friend hates Cockroach Mask, and he takes it all in at face value. It’s all real, to him.

There’s a slow-motion scene in which Shota watches Cockroach Mask strike a pose in the ring that he and his dad practiced in the mirror and comes to the realization, just as Cockroach Mask locks eyes with him across a crowded arena and comes to the same realization. Then Shota runs out alone and sobs while walking home, and then I was also crying — you get the idea.

The journey of this young hero is both coming to terms with his dad’s unconventional career – helped by his mother, who describes passion over propriety – and eventually understanding the interesting and valuable place that heels occupy in professional wrestling.

Couple all this with an eccentric superfan writer who lets her love for Cockroach Mask represent to Shota how support for figures in wrestling comes in many forms — to boo a heel and cheer when they’re outsmarted is to show respect.

There are some intensely sweet moments of Takashi’s fatherly selflessness and personal sacrifice, plus some wrestling-specific acts of what I could call traditional ‘heroism’.

Wrestling fans know what bittersweet tastes like, and the ending to this movie is really perfect both for its own specific story of Shota and his heel wrestler dad, but also accepting oneself. The shame doesn’t come from without, but within. That’ll make sense after you watch it.

This movie is also interesting in that it kind of serves to lay the foundation for what wrestling is at its core, all the weirdness and theatrics, but also the passion and sacrifice. The complete absence of irony is what makes it work, and this tribute to wrestling is a movie that honestly anyone could watch and enjoy, fan or not. They even fashioned a real Fantasticamania match after it.

I don’t want to spoil too much, obviously. Rather than this being an in-depth review, let it be more of a call to action in these dire times — watch it, make your friends watch it, make your family watch it. It’s so touching and uplifting, it’s done well and interesting, it’ll make you cry probably. It might distract you for even a moment.

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Just like real wrestling. Stay safe out there.