September 14, 2005

THE CALAMARI WRESTLER (2004) – Region 1 DVD review

(2004, Japan)

Region 1 US DVD (
Pathfinder Video release)

It started with an action figure... which I bought in Japan when this film had just come out. I've since waited a year to get to see this film with English subtitles. Some of my friends couldn't believe the DVD existed. They thought the cover art was a leg-pull!

THE CALAMARI WRESTLER turns out to be a comedy with drama, pro-wrestling, religion and a lot of seafood.

Film Review (no spoilers):
The Japanese wrestling scene is turned on its head when the reigning champion is challenged by a man-sized squid. Where did it come from? Why does it wrestle? What does it eat? Can it find true love between bouts?

Despite the low, low budget, the production is successfully ambitious. The tight, twisting plot is large-scale and full of ideas (behind the scenes footage, in the DVD extras, shows the crew improvising on set and create an excellent shot of 'Calamari' on an exercise machine). The drama and occasional melodrama becomes instantly entertaining because one of the characters is a giant squid!

The comedy walks a very fine line, but they've nailed it. The actor playing the fantastic lead character, makes no effort to walk like a squid! He just walks down the street with a slight swagger, shopping basket over one tentacle! Superb. Not even a mention of how a squid can walk around - his abilities are just taken for granted. It looks like a fantastic suit - but no matter what FX budget you threw at it, you'd still know it was a special effect - what makes the whole concept work is the script, the director and the cast. I believe the director got the idea while working on the ULTRAMAN TIGA TV series (around 1997).

THE CALAMARI WRESTLER is full of surprises, and I thought it was going to be a one-joke film. The director has his tongue in his cheek, but has the cast play it totally straight – I find the Japanese are fantastic at playing in fantasy situations (be it ghosts, giant monsters or superheroes of any size). A couple of the lead actors wrestle as well as act. There are many presumably famous commentators and wrestlers scattered throughout the film, not least the pundit who insists on sticking a drinks can to his forehead. All these celebrities (?) mean nothing to me, as a clueless but inquisitive westerner - the monks, the religion, the seafood are all part of Japanese culture, in a film presumably intended for a local audience. For me it's a stretch to take it all on board - but it's funny, as well as fascinating.

The English subtitles are very well done, which is crucial for comedy. The transfer is good, but don’t ask me whether it was shot on film or video – I’m guessing it was shot on a mixture of video and film and then edited on video (which would make it V-Cinema). The worst technical aspect is the under-produced audio mix, which is occasionally distracting. But I guess that was due to budget rather than the mastering of the DVD.

There aren’t many extras – the best trailer I’ve seen online is missing here. Thankfully there’s a good behind-the-scenes featurette (which is a bit short on subs) which shows the suit actors, the sets, and a generous glimpse of how much fun they had shooting it all.

I’m extremely thankful that this film ever got released at all – this is the only DVD I’ve found with subtitles, and it’s the only release outside of Japan.

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