We Are Not Underwater, This Is Really Happening: The Calamari Wrestler (2004)

A recent acceptance into an academic publication has led me to heavily reinvest interest in the manner with which I critically read films and I have been setting aside, in my mind at least, a set of films that I know I want to create papers around, one it particular being the 2007 genre bending Big Man Japan, which reconsiders the Kaiju film by adding a layer of mockumnetary to its narrative, while deconstructing Japanese masculine privilege in the process.  However, I figured this film stood in its own bizarre world and would be somewhat impossible to relate outside of setting it against its wild predecessors in the various Toho films.  Yet, when I hear about a film that focused on the wrestling experiences of a human/calamari hybrid I was rather certain I had found something that would exist, at the very least, in the same space of the cinematically bizarre.  Yet, when I realized that the film was tackling some of the same issues of otherness and loss of male power in a changing Japanese modernity, I was aware that the two films exist in a theoretical framework that first focuses on the state of masculinity within Japanese culture only to immediately dismiss it as a failed notion point of power, one that has been and continually should be undermined for all its absurdity.  Indeed, it is no small accident that both films center their narratives within the notion of combat for viewership, but that will be discussed in more detail in a bit.  It should be noted that The Calamari Wrestler is not the most visually appealing of films and clearly either lacked, or purposefully avoided, a high budget.  I would argue that this is a production choice on the part of those involved to make The Calamari Wrestler come across not as a glossy science-fiction film, but instead; to exist more within lines of the magical realist melodramatic tradition that has the ability to study the human condition from a decidedly detached point of view, while also not become so distancing as to seem impossible.  Sure it is really weird to see a anthropomorphized squid walking about the suburbs of Tokyo, but it is also quite an endearing thing to see him flail his tentacle arms in frustration and stare longingly to the wall as he dreams of past loves.

The Calamari Wrestler takes very little time establishing itself narratively, beginning very in media res with a battle going on between the championship holding wrestler and an up and comer who hopes to make his name in the ring, eventually trumping a great icon of the sport with whom he has been living under the shadow of both professionally and personally in that his girlfriend reveals that she still has feelings for the iconic wrestler to which she was married.  After a successful win, the lights go dark and inexplicably a large squid humanoid enters the ring, quickly defeating the wrestler, much to the shock of the audience and the federations various executives.  Looking at the numbers from the bout, the executives do everything in their power to convince the mysterious calamari wrestler to engage in another fight, hoping that he will take a dive in order to assure the heroic virtues of their young star.  The calamari wrestler is furious at such a suggestion and agrees only to fight on the grounds that it be absolutely real and not staged, hoping to win back the heart of the woman he loves.  Yet, it is this very desire that almost causes him to lose his powers as the calamari wrestler, only managing to be saved at the very last moment by a set of Buddhist monks.  Returning to the bout, the calamari wrestler is stunned when he sees that his opponent has become his own beast man, in the form of a mutated octopus.  While it proves a greater challenge, calamari still wins and goes on to be the champion of the league, as well as an icon within his neighborhood.  Letting his guard down, calamari is attacked by yet another muted man known as The Squilla Boxer, leading the federation to plan yet another huge battle, wherein, they pit the brawn and determination of calamari against the agility and guile of squilla.  The battle is terribly one-sided as squilla brutally beats upon calamari, yet when octopus joins in his aid things are revealed to be far more intertwined than either could imagine, leading to what has to be one of the most unusual reunions in all of cinema, followed by a birth reveal that would give Rosemary's Baby a run for its money.

I mention this film as being a close partner to Big Man Japan, first because they can be seen as unique revisionist Kaiju works, one adding a human component to a genre that is decidedly otherworldly, while the other shrinks down the gigantic monsters to human size, and in the process giving it a degree of human investment.  More simply, the two films manage to ground a genre that lives in a state of excess and cinematic grandiosity.  While it could be contested that the films are simply deconstructionist, particularly Big Man Japan in its mockumenary style, it is far more probable that both intend to reject the sort of masculine entrenchment in the figures of kaiju.  While I am not familiar with Kaiju in any great detail, I did a brief search on Google and discovered that kaiju that are expressly feminine are limited, indeed most websites get creative and include Audrey 2 from Little Shop of Horrors on their lists.  As such, it is a decidedly masculine realm, even for being creatures that are "strange beasts."  Both Big Man Japan and The Calamari Wrestler accept this world to be influenced by the masculine and set about undermining its privilege, whether it be making calamari seem diminutive when forced to exist in a space that does not afford him to use brawn, particularly, the moments when he is shopping, or when Big Man Japan drops the child that is assumedly to be his enemy.  What makes The Calamari Wrestler particularly interesting is that there are layers of masculinity being undermined, competing ones that all find it necessary to evolve to something different to attain power over a competitor.  Essentially, calamari begins as an unusual version of masculinity, one that is mocked and feared, until it is revealed that there is a degree of power and potential in the difference, at which point it becomes the point of desired masculinity.  It would seem at this point that the work is, for all intents and purposes, the opposite of Big Man Japan which chronicles his downfall, yet the reveal at the closing that proves the whole set of bouts to be a result of repressed lack of a paternal figure and a backdoor prodigal son narrative, suggest that a masculine duel that should have existed solely in the private sphere, instead, became a spectacle both of show for the men who wanted their privilege to be acknowledge and of desperation, suggesting that their place in the private sphere leads to their own degree of silencing.  The two films work brilliantly to deconstruct masculinity, if one can get over the layer of absurdity covering each work.

Key Scene:  The entire scene in which calamari works out the initial details for his upcoming match with the federation organizers might be one of the greatest contemporary uses of situation comedy available.

This film needs to be seen, unfortunately, it is hard to come by, but there are ways, one just has to be creative with obtaining the work.

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