“The Great Sasuke” (Mikiko Sasaki, 2015)

Professional wrestling is almost uniquely underserved by cultural mediums outside of itself. That this is still broadly the case given the disintegration of the divide between niche cultural pursuits and what constitutes mainstream entertainment in the hyperinformation age, seems more than a little off. In many respect what was formerly designated the preserve of the hobbyist or the socially maladjusted nerd now constitutes a significant swathe of mainstream pop culture, while in parallel its never been easier to drill down further into micro-fandoms and subgenre obsessions via social media.

The historical footage explosion of the previous decade and the emergence of streaming services and youtube curated free content from indie promotions across the globe may have resulted in these D.I.Y communities celebrating, discussing and exchanging thoughts on every imaginable style and era of pro wrestling, but their very nature as products of Facebook, Twitter, or even as fan generated forums and podcasts dictate that a fundamental part of their appeal is a reliance on the labour time, largely unenumerated, of those who create it.

It does seem curious quite how few written or filmed projects document pro wrestling with the kind of cod-Cultural Studies seriousness that other once derided as valueless subcultural forms have been deemed worthy of. Wrestling and comic books have obvious shared sources of appeal and cultural significance, albeit ones that are beyond the focus of this article. It’s a curious moment in history where Let People Enjoy Things is a meme-cum-dominant conversational reflex adopted by individuals with various justifications, some more nuanced and persuasive than others, but also media and cultural institutions whose apparent basis should be critical engagement. A significant portion of online discussion around the merits or lack thereof of superhero cinema, for example, can often feel like it is conducted on the proviso that to question the quality of the work is justifiable, but to question it’s intrinsic worth certainly isn’t.

I’m minded of this when it comes to pro-wrestling and the quality of the writing and films that it has produced both within and outside of the confines of its fandom. It has as mostly avoided the kind of social documentation you’d imagine could provide a decent critical and financial return for the right author or film maker in a contemporary context. Everything from board gaming to anime, two other pastimes considered mainstream enough to draw profit but nerdy enough to line the shelves of a Forbidden Planet, are considered (not incorrectly) as worthy of serious sociological studies, whether academic or popular.

It goes without saying that wrestling has a very specific origin and history that by definition compromises and discomforts bourgeois perceptions of good taste. To further complicate things, it has often compromised and discomforted its own fans perceptions of good taste. It’s carny roots and the corporate fuelled preposterousness of mainstream US wrestling in its most memorable recent haydays are defined in the popular imagination by a WWE brand pushing precisely the kinds of imagery that bourgeois sensibilities of both conservatism and liberalism disdain so vehemently: it is gaudy, inarticulate, sleazy, base and money grubbing. In the case of the Trump boosting, union busting McMahons, and despite their best efforts to cool off the more grossly scuzzy aspects of the brand in the post Attitude era, they still rightly attract scorn beyond the wrestling world for their morally pitch black associations with Saudi Arabia and the appalling treatment of their “independent contractors”.

Outside of a few notable exceptions, and unlike comics or video games, pro wrestling is rarely the subject of the kind of long reads so popular in the current iteration of online publishing. Even within traditional, internal wrestling media the quality of writing can vary hugely between the functionally passable to the notoriously poor and distractingly idiosyncratic. There can be good reasons for this. In many cases, the few dominant print publications approaching their work in a non kayfabe manner were begun by fans who saw themselves as wrestling enthusiasts first, writers second, or in the case of Dave Meltzer, a journalist and reporter with first priority given to scoops and insider news from a world previously entirely shielded from public view.

No one, regardless of their views on his analysis or personality can deny that Meltzer has played a pioneering and downright vital role, little challenged, as the pre-eminent chronicler of the wrestling industry and someone whose dedication and tireless efforts deserve to be remembered and referenced for years to come. But Meltzer has never been a man concerned in the slightest with the quality of his writing, nor those he publishes. To be fair to him, there’s probably a persuasive argument that he, nor any of his contemporaries like Wade Keller, should never have been expected to be especially theoretical or literary in their presentation.

That they were covering pro wrestling in as much detail at all during much of their time as journalists was enough for most given the paucity of coverage elsewhere. While it might strike some as odd that an American culture that so celebrates the figure of the sportswriter as admired for their prose as their reporting might have failed to produce much in the way of engaging writing on a topic admittedly maligned by the gatekeepers of cultural good taste, Meltzer and co. never defined themselves as pop sociologists or economists, and it’s misguided and fruitless to look to them as such.

The situation for writing on wrestling in book form has thankfully improved in recent years – both via histories and collections that focus on specific eras or aspects of wrestling as a whole or region specific studies and a plug for my friend Sarah Parkin and the other contributors to Women Love Wrestling seems appropriate here. It’s still surprising to me that there appear to be so few pitches to publishers that seek to explore the medium in the way that Sarah and co do in the book. That is, to explore it’s significance and place in popular culture like, say, music writers might of their subject. I’m minded of this because I recently re-read Dan Hancox’s sure to be standard reference for the history of grime music “Inner City Pressure”.

As a passionate and decades long fan of the music and a participant as a writer and raver in the culture, Hancox is able to channel his further intellectual and political interests in areas such as gentrification, urbanism and political economy through the prism of the music. By dint of the sheer fact it seems obvious that the neoliberalisation of London as a capital city under consecutive Conservative, Labour and Conservative administrations is a defining factor in the nature of the music itself, he is able to make connections across a range of subjects and approaches. Hancox is a writer used to distilling complex sociological and economic themes into jargon free, easily digestible prose and It’s this kind of angle on pro wrestling that seems to me at least moderately viable as a publishing option. Certainly, in a world in which Stuart Hall is regularly invoked by a parade of awful men justifying the worthiness and necessity of their take on what their favourite superhero says about late capitalism (usually something fairly rote), it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect at least a handful of wrestling fans who also happen to be handy essayists or documentarians to have pitched something like this.

Where good pro wrestling writing does exist it’s often limited in its scope and presentation by a lack of surefootedness in terms of in house publisher style, or a nervousness about presenting work as a straight up, serious and considered take on the business and performance aspects of the medium. ECW Press seems easily the most prominent publisher in this regard and the only one dedicated almost entirely to the subject of pro wrestling. Here, the good work of someone like Tim Hornbaker with his fine history of the National Wrestling Alliance, sits uneasily alongside some of the publishers more quick buck paperbacks of lower quality in terms of content and formatting. And the formatting really can matter here. Chris Charlton’s New Japan history felt like something of a missed opportunity and a smudge not so much down to the authors choices as those of the publishers, presenting what is an endlessly fascinating story that could potentially have been used to examine all sorts of themes and motifs in wider Japanese society in a manner which didn’t seem to trust  readers to go three chapters without jarringly resorting to list-making or other magazine-lite features that could feel mildly infantilising.

With wrestling served so underwhelmingly in print, it’s debatable whether or not documentary film and television has ever served it any better. Over two decades since the Montreal Screwjob and the advent of the Attitude era signalled the last economic and pop cultural boom period for wrestling, all the more notable for it occurring in a media ecology that was rapidly mutating into something entirely new, the two touchstones of wrestling as subject matter for documentary film remain “Wrestling With Shadows” and “Beyond The Mat”. Both have complicated legacies but can broadly claim to have reached an audience beyond the confines of wrestling fandom via the hook of revealing (or exposing, depending on your preference) the “reality” behind the artifice of the form. This came at a time when kayfabe was only newly and unofficially dead in the minds of the general observer. It was largely immaterial that the willing suspension of disbelief had always been at the fundamental core of the fan experience for most of the second half of the twentieth century.

“Wrestling With Shadows” remains the less tonally dated of the two. It focuses heavily on the diffuse nature of public persona and personal conviction in collision, in an industry dependent on the nature of that duality to sustain itself. “Beyond The Mat” is concerned with this too, although it frames its subject matter in a slightly more explicitly knowing and acutely postmodern way, revelling perhaps a little too pruriently in some of the less savoury aspects of its subjects life and work but sustaining itself with the gonzo glee that comes from what – at that point – felt like an access and insight that felt unprecedented outside of sheet reading circles. Both stand up as dated but contextually worthy efforts, although I’m unsure quite how well remembered they are outside of wrestling fan circles these days.

Both foregrounded the struggle of individual subjects to remain relevant amid an unforgiving industry and the impact their work had on their personal and family lives, but neither gave primacy to the material and social conditions at play outside of wrestling itself with quite as subtle yet powerful care as Kim Longinotto’s masterly GAEA Girls feature. Stylistically far more patient and pared down, it documents life in the dojo overseen by Chigusa Nagayo, one of the finest and most accomplished pro wrestlers of any era globally and one half of the legendarily beloved and culturally significant Crush Gals tag team alongside Lioness Asuka. With a style that can verge on a kind of ambient verité, Longinotto, who would receive mainstream critical acclaim and awards recognition in a career marked by an interest in the subject of female strength and suffering, observes the multifaceted and deeply complex relationship between trainees and trainer. She extrapolates from this daily regimen of physical endurance and sublimation a rigidly hierarchical set of strictures governing Japanese society. A heavily socialised enforcement of duties and tribute, which her camera demonstrates as held up by both externalised and internalised responses to forms of contradiction and alienation, through the designations of gender conformity and arbitrary authority. It’s most famous for the still shocking sequence featuring a young Meiko Satomura, who snaps at a young trainee, dropkicking her square in the face with enough impact to bloody her to the point she requires stitches. It’s an image to file alongside those of Chigusa routinely verbally abusing and ridiculing her charges as one that sits uncomfortably with the cosier public image of both womens current and past status in the eyes of most fans.

One criticism of the film, which could perhaps apply more widely to Longinotto’s wider ouvre, is that without the use of much in the way of contextualising comment from outwith, the direct experience of her subjects, her work can sometimes feel like it trades in a mild exoticisation or othering, with her cameras observational detachment reminiscent of the inadequate comfort of a liberal feminist presentation. An emphasis on individual victimhood over a more radical positioning of the possibilities for collective experience with implications of solidarity and a defiance of patriarchal norms is never fully explored, although there’s certainly an argument to be made that this might have felt ladled on given the register of the rest of the film. Regardless, the power of GAEA girls remains undiminished in terms of its emotional impact and all-pervasive tone of realist melancholy. This persists even amid more light-hearted moments, although some western viewers may feel that they gain too little in terms of an understanding of the broader structures of Japanese society and political economy that impinge on its themes and subjects.

A similar air of all-pervasive melancholia runs through Mikiko Sasaki’s hour-long profile of the autumn years of Great Sasuke’s in ring and political career. Recently uploaded to youtube in it’s entirety, it had slipped from my mind since I first saw a trailer for it a few years ago. Off the back of that trailer I didn’t have the highest of hopes, given the patchy history of wrestling related media and cultural efforts in genera. But I was pleasantly surprised by the candid nature of the film as a whole. It initially feels like something steering safely between a kind of documentary version of Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, with the tired tale of a grizzled, eccentric vet amid declining times for the industry as a whole an allegory for changing cultural tastes and technological advancements. But at precisely the point that the film reaches for this trope, it shifts focus.

This is due to the most tragic of external circumstances colliding with the perennial surreality of Sasuke’s life. Sasuke and Michinoku Pro, the company he founded and remains the totemic representation of in the minds of most, defined themselves with a hugely admirable and identifiable sense of regional pride when they burst onto the radars of western fans through tape trading, very early online hype and eventually via the mainstream exposure gained by the working relationship with first ECW then WWF at the height of the 90’s boom period. With a dedication to presenting their own idiosyncratic reading of some confluence of puroresu, lucha and comedy with an international appeal, Sasuke’s dedication to his home region of the north east is explained as arising out of a combination of old fashioned civic duty and a punkish D.I.Y idealism. While several talking heads testify to his influence and often inexplicable, infuriating individuality – including current Michinoku pro owner Jinsei Shinzaki and very naughty boy Taka Michinoku – that this documentary isn’t overloaded with talking heads is a definite benefit.

 Instead the directors trail Sasuke in what constitutes his daily life and routine, something he approaches with a combination of general unawareness and ill preparedness,  immense charisma and frequent naivete which is presented as well intentioned and embraced by those closest to him as opposed to trying to expose him as some delusional David Brent figure. The visceral, unhinged appeal of Sasuke as a performer is established early on, with breathtaking archive footage reminding us just how gripping it was to watch him in those early to peak years of his career (I’d personally never seen a wrestler fly or move with such combined propulsive speed and grace as him). Yet these clips are leavened out by the inclusion of interviewees testimonies which describe an inspirational, deeply arresting figure with a propensity for a lack of thoroughness and a flightiness of ideas and motivation that can often lead to hare-brained schemes and unfinished projects, nearly always hanging by the string of his pants financially and organisationally. It’s heartening to hear that, according to those interviewed here at least, Sasuke never reneged on payments for those working for him regardless of the companies porous finances or dwindling business. The way Sasuke is depicted here reminded me of something approaching a semi-regular trope in Japanese cinema over the last century, that of the perennially hard up small business owner or artisan walking a line between the temptations of non-legitimate money making schemes and propelled with comical but ultimately sad naievete into schemes which his long suffering family and friends are both charmed and tired by. Sasuke’s domestic life is portrayed in a manner reminiscent of that of his predecessors from Mexico, a country and culture which he owes not just his career to but his family, his dedicated Mexican wife and their two children are shown enacting all the comforting minutiae of the familial day-to-day. Except, of course, with the pleasingly dedicated detail that Dad refuses to take his mask off while the cameras roll.

While many of his fellow Japanese and  good deal of the wider world has always viewed Sasuke as definitively eccentric not just for his in ring persona, but for his involvement in politics leading to the surreal spectacle of a prefectural legislator remaining masked in the chamber, this film frames the political aspect of Sasuke’s life as being as much about a sense of duty and tradition than it is some gaudy way to sell a few more tickets to Michinoku shows. It’s hard to know, not having any command of the language or much of a detailed knowledge of Japanese politics in general, whether he appears more serious and genuine about his role in this regard than we might have expected, with his clear love for Mexican lucha tradition and culture perhaps informing his decision to remain in his Sasuke persona during his political life as much as any desire for attention. Were it the latter though, Sasuke wouldn’t be the first non-career politician to cleave to such things when confronted with establishment and public assumptions of inappropriateness on his part. 

This is the background that assures the viewer that the closing of the films first act with, Sasuke’s victory over Ken Oh for a minor regional strap is merely an attempt to balance what feels up until that point as something akin to Kore-da does The Wrestler, with Sasuke and Michinoku’s in-ring and business fortunes shown to be demonstrably on the downturn, performing in front of audiences miniscule in comparison to their mid-90’s peak and in venues nothing like as salubrious. Yet Sasuke is never a pitiful figure: he isn’t given to complaining about his lot, even if he does exhibit a permanent aura of bubbling anxiety that might be specified as personal but is in all likelihood just something that bubbles up to concern us all once we reach a certain point in our personal and professional lives. But he does express feelings of self-doubt and a lack of purpose that have you cringing a little for him as he unwisely decides to run again for political office, this time in the aftermath of the 2011 tsunami that ravaged the region Michinoku has so doggedly represented since it’s founding. The tragedy that dominates the second half of the film

While the Shinzaki and Michinoku interviews provide some nice anecdotes and reveal some interesting interpersonal dynamics – Shinzaki is occasionally extremely forthright when judging Sasukes character in a way you get the feeling only an old friend or business associate bruised by negotiations with him (in this case both of those things) might be – it is left to less heralded names to speak with dignity and emotional earnestness about the tsunami that devastated so much of the north east province. Here I found myself experiencing a regular frustration that can occur when watching films in a language foreign to me, that of wishing I could understand the complexities and subtleties of the different levels of tone, inference and sincerity in the voices of those on the screen, which when it comes to the political can help hugely in disentangling the carny bullshit from the genuinely personal sentiment. Sasuke’s run for office this time round feels genuine – as he reminds us and those gathered on a local street corner with some regularity, he is running on this occasion to attempt to make a difference for a region devastated – but when so many lives have been lost and with a personal lack of education or background knowledge of the regions politics, it’s hard for me to judge whether he or his opponents are offering much in the way of concrete proposals that can help the community.

After a crushing defeat though – Sasuke polls last and the moment, mere seconds after his team discover the severity of his defeat, when a campaign manager declares him to have been arrogant in his presumptions of the possibility for success, is uncomfortable. It’s hard at this point not to flash back to an earlier, instructive scene that perhaps gives us an insight into how Sasuke, seen here as the ultimate Quitodian figure, views his own story. Sitting at the kind of screen set up you’d more readily associate with a cyberpunk shop clerk in a near future Paul Verhoven film from the early 90’s, Sasuke works dutifully under a poster for Anvil, the 80’s metal band who never lost their Japanese following but toiled for years in obscurity back home in their native Canada after an initial period of success, only to have their careers resuscitated due to a chance Japanese booking revealing the extent of the bands unabated following in that region. The subsequent documentary that detailed their comeback made them festival fixtures for the foreseeable back in their homeland. It’s an arch but not entirely ludicrous comparison between Sasuke and the band, both of them declared influences on more famous figures in their own fields with public profiles far less prominent than they once had, with Anvil’s delight at their Japanese response analoged to Sasuke’s reverence as an all-time great by wrestling fans outside of his own nation.

Sasuke’s steadfast and consistent appeal outside of Japan is presented as ambiguous in terms of how it correlates with his current fortunes. It’s injected with no small amount of ironic pathos given the misdirected if well intentioned flounderings of his latest foray into politics. His whole career in this realm is framed as a collision between establishment sneering at the political outsider – while Sasuke ran on a liberal democratic ticket first time round, there is an obvious sense of embarrassment on display from the establishment elements in prefectural Japanese politics that must share the same podiums and legislatery halls as the hooded eccentric – and some combination of naif innocence and quixotic delusion. Here the film is more in keeping with Gaea Girls sense of observation, itself suitably reliant on framings and compositions innovated by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu in the Japanese cinema of the early 20th century and adapted by western fiction and documentary directors. In contrast to the more knowing, if gentle and affectionate, ribbing of some of its subject matters lack of comprehension at a cultural moment that has passed them by in Anvil, Sasuke’s political campaign is allowed to play out through edits and sequences that are less emotionally signposted.

It is hard to begrudge the makers of “The Great Sasuke” ending on a positive note given the heartwarming circumstances surrounding Sasuke’s apparent sense of purpose after the end of his political aspirations. This reinvigoration arrives by way of reconnecting with the local area that comprised such a vital element of the inspiration for Sasuke’s pioneering founding of a regional promotion to offer an alternative to the dominant Tokyo outfits all those year ago. While Anvil’s travails were ultimately justified by a climactic scene in which the band discovers the extent of it’s enduring appeal to a Japanese audience, and subsequently achieve a resurgence, Sasuke makes peace with himself through throwing his energies into support and relief efforts for the northern region decimated by the tsunami, arranging benefit shows and exhibition matches and training sessions for orphaned children and local schools. It’s eternally difficult for the long term wrestling fan to dislodge the vague feeling that they are being worked, but it would take a cynic of extreme proportions to not be moved by the responses of these local children who have had so much pain and suffering visited upon them. They display the wonder and sense of communal delight we’ve all experienced at one point in time or another at the comic book heroes come to life that constitute elements of all the great wrestling traditions.

“The Great Sasuke” is too brief and restricted by a focus on one individual to have the understated insight and cumulative heft of something like GAEA Girls, which remains probably the finest documentary ever made on the subject of pro wrestling in Japan or anywhere else. But it does successfully avoid the temptation to limit itself by referencing little of interest outside of its own subculture, admirably earning its position amongst any list of superior pro wrestling films. Given pro wrestling’s unique potential to subvert and repackage universal themes, its propensity to reflect every extreme of society back at itself by upturning bourgeois notions of morality and good taste, both for good and for bad, perhaps we’ll soon see written work on the subject matching it’s ambition. But this won’t be easy as long as writing and publishing remains the pursuit of hobbyists, limited financially in a world dominated by elitist social networks and nepotism and heroically sparing their labour time outside of their work and family commitments. The solution, as always, is to build self-sustaining institutions that can offer the pay, space, time and editorial support necessary for writers on wrestling to presume their work is worthwhile and valued in this regard.

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