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The Calamari Wrestler (2004)

Once again we look East towards the "Land of the Rising Sun" and ask,
'Hey, tomodachi-san, what the hell is going on over there?!'

Movies, like life, must be viewed within a certain context. One man's refuse is another man's treasure, just as one man's bomb is another man's masterpiece. As fans of B-movies, my brethren and I are very aware of this maxim. It's a sort of badge of honor to say you saw a particular movie (or, better yet,
paid to see one) that was just BRUTAL, all the while wearing a sick little smile on your bad-movie-loving face. It's almost like we've become one of those idiots that you knew in high school who would dare you to punch them in the stomach as hard as you could: "Go ahead Uwe Boll! Make a sequel to Alone In The Dark! I can take it!" The idea of "it's so bad, it's good" is bandied about a great deal by us "types" with a certain degree of glee. So much so that moviemakers have begun to recognize this portion of the movie going public as a viable group of consumers. And I'm not talking about just the direct-to-DVD quickies with minimal plotting or production values, but filmmakers with B-sensibilities in mind.

Stuff like
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or Bubba Ho-tep have started to find their target audience in the 2000's, getting not only some critical acclaim, but a modicum of monetary success (albeit, in the smaller scale DVD market, rather than wide theatrical release receipts). I would say The Calamari Wrestler falls comfortably in line with this new age of movies made for the guy and/or gal who has a Full Moon-produced Puppet Master figurine lurking somewhere in their domicile.

Professional wrestler Koji Taguchi has just been crowned the new champion of the Japanese circuit when a giant bi-pedal squid wearing knee high boots literally comes out of nowhere (I see no other explanation for no one noticing him until he's actually IN the ring), gives him the 10-tentacle treatment, and kind of ruins the moment for Koji. The ringside crowd (which includes Koji's fiancÚ, Miyako) can't help notice that the squid finished off Koji with a move very reminiscent of the former (and thought to be deceased) champion, Kan-ichi Iwata. Throw in the fact that Miyako used to be Kan-ichi's lady friend, and we've probably got one of those "wrestler-woman-squid" love triangles that are so prevalent in Japan.

With a premise this bizarre, there's really no reason to reach for laughs. In fact, everyone involved seemed to know that "playing it straight" would be the quickest way to get us giggling. And by straight, I mean that everyone seems basically fine with the fact that the former champion has been reincarnated as a 7-foot tall squid with legs and surprisingly expressive eyes. Sure, the local grocer might be a little startled at first, but most seem to take it in stride. Miyako doesn't even seem to be alarmed by the possibilities of "squid love". It's just a matter of following her heart, which of course leads to Kan-ichi Squid, leaving Koji out in the cold.

After this absolute
stunner of a set-up, the movie actually settles down into a pretty basic sports/love story plot structure. The ever-present shadow of Rocky is of course noticeable. Not just in the well-worn training montages, but also in the eventual Apollo/Balboa-like partnering of Koji and the Squid that comes in the wake of their fateful match (and I couldn't help but notice the red beret that Miyako was wearing during one of the Squid's matches; very Adrian-esque). And like Rocky, much of the action in the movie takes place outside of the ring. And also like Rocky, Kan-ichi Squid's path is split between his exploits in the ring and his love of a woman.

Really. It is.

And this brings me back to the issue of context. Now, sitting there watching this movie at home by myself, I was over the relative shock of listening to a squid talk and seeing him wrestle, and laugh (and love) rather quickly. So with the writers and cast deciding to play it "straight" rather than for laughs, I was eventually forced to evaluate the movie on
dramatic merit, of all things. I found myself "not buying" the idea that the actress who played Miyako was really torn between Koji and Kan-ichi. And that, of course, is really missing the point. Had this been seen in a theater with a group of my friends and similarly like-minded individuals when it comes to this kind of schlock (and I mean that in the best possible way), it would have been much more enjoyable. This would be perfect B-fest fodder. But making this a solo mission within the comforts of my own living room was kind of futile. Cracking squid jokes with at least one other member of my b-loving kin would have improved this greatly.


The Fightin' - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5
Let's start with the Good:
It certainly looks like they got real wrestlers for the non-sea-creature-suit-wearing performers. They've got all the moves and provide all the emoting that one would hope to find in a wrestling ring. And I would be remiss if I didn't give credit to the men who are in the suits (aside from the giant Kan-ichi Squid, we also get a Giant Octopus, and a Giant Mantis Shrimp, lovingly referred to as the "Squilla Boxer"; I'm not telling you who they're reincarnations of). These guys are certainly willing to get physical. There are a number of full-on face plants that looked less than comfortable.

The Bad? Well, the suits kind of suck. I know we're supposed to have a sense of humor about it, but when it comes time to have the Squid and Octopus "Get It On!", it was hard not to see it as just 2 guys in rubber suits flopping around on each other. They were only able to 'animate' 2 of the tentacles at a time, and it's hard to imagine them as anything other than human arms with long, floppy silicon appendages attached to them. At first the lo-tech-ness of it all elicits a snicker, but then it starts to wear thin. They would have been better off using some equally lo-tech effects to animate the other tentacles. I mean, if we're allowed to see the feet of the actor in the suit, why not allow us to see the wires that make the other 8 arms go, rather than having them flop impotently at the actor's sides. Or how about the timeworn effect of wrapping the tentacle around a head or leg, pulling it off quickly, and then reversing the film to show a tentacle "grabbing hold" of said appendage? I was far more impressed with the liveliness of the "Squilla Boxer" suit. The actor inside of it was well versed in that movement style so prevalent in other Japanese productions. I wouldn't be surprised if this guy had done some side work as a Power Ranger or Jet Jaguar. Having him matched-up with the Squid in the finale only succeeded in showing the shortcomings of that suit. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the filmmakers meant to do this.

Overall Rating - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6
If ever there was a movie that I wanted a commentary track for, THIS was it. Of course I didn't get one. But they did include an intermittently subtitled 'making of' featurette. And the one thing that came through loud and clear was that director Minoru Kawasaki and his entire cast and crew "got it". They all knew they were making a very goofy movie about a guy walking around Japan in a rubber Squid suit. My criticism of the film is that they could have gone even further into the outer reaches of goofiness and improved what they had. But in its current iteration, I think it would certainly provide excellent riffing sustenance for a group of chubby bald guys in glasses wearing 'Gamera' t-shirts. And I think this cyber-gathering of b-movie lovers amply proves that we're a small but growing special interest group amongst the movie consuming public!

We've got bandwidth and Twizzlers with us and we're not afraid to use 'em!
Keep this kind of stuff coming!

Rob Tillisch
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