“My dream is to become bigger. My dad is very big, but I’m small, so I want to eat lots of my mom’s food and become big like my dad. If I can grow to be big and strong, I think that will make me be kind to people.” Thus proudly says Shota Omura, the child protagonist in Kyohei Fujimura’s My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler, during a class presentation on what he wants to be when he grows up. But at the time he says this, he has no knowledge of what his father does for a living — except that maybe it’s somewhat related to him being big and strong, one of the many features that Shota admires about him. But when one day Shota watches a pro wrestling match where a man wearing a cockroach mask — a man hated by the audience — goes wild on the ring, his life is about to change. It is at that moment when he comes to learn that “Cockroach Mask” is no one else but his loving father, Takashi.
“Dad?” we hear Shota ask himself in denial, hoping that what he had just come to learn is nothing but a nightmare. It may be a universal rite of passage for children to be embarrassed by their parents, but nothing could have prepared him for this sort of embarrassment: the one of learning that his kind, funny, gentle giant of a father, the one who takes him to the public bath and plays with him, is, in fact, a publicly hated figure. And what’s even worse — he does that for a living.
Cockroach Mask, played by real-life pro wrestler and New Japan Pro-Wrestling Champion Hiroshi Tanahashi, is a heel wrestler. “Heels” are the bad guys of the pro-wrestling ring and their role is to be hated by the audience. As far as Takashi is concerned, he does his job to perfection. Fully embracing his insect-themed villain persona, he’d slither out from underneath the ring, crawl on his belly, and attack his opponent with underhanded tactics, including a can of bug spray. Before becoming Cockroach Mask, Takashi used to be a face (a “good guy” star wrestler) until he suffered a serious knee injury. Now being a heel is all he can do to continue to wrestle — even when that takes a toll on his body. Wrestling is Takashi’s passion, and he will do anything to stay in that world because otherwise, he’d turn into a miserable and bitter person. And if this happens, he is afraid that he will also become an unhappy father, too.
Clueless about his father’s feelings, however, Shota is in shock that the dad he admired is a person who can go as low as a cockroach for his work. He is embarrassed, angry, and frustrated, and there is nothing that can help him understand why Takashi does what he does. A key role in making Shota appreciate his father’s occupation is his mother, who helps him understand that Takashi earns for the family and that he is doing his best. What she tells him, in other words, is that Takashi sacrifices his wellbeing and pride because it makes him a better father. And that, ultimately, is his way of expressing his love to his son.
“Love,” specifically “a father’s love,” is the guiding theme of the movie, which means something very different in Japan than it does in many other countries. With long working hours, frequent business trips, and historically cultural roles that put mothers primarily in charge of child-raising, Japanese fathers are often viewed as being somewhat less emotionally attached and expressive toward their children. Seen from a foreign audience, that is perhaps true. Japanese people may not be famous for visibly expressing emotions, but this does not mean that they lack strong feelings for their children. Our character Takashi, a father who does everything to protect his family and make them proud, is one example of how a Japanese father would express his love to his child: not through words, but through deeds; through setting up an example that despite being a “bad” guy at work, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad guy. The physical endurance at work, the pride he suffers when he moves from a “face” to a “heel,” his health, and the discomfort of not knowing how to tell his child about his job are all sacrifices Takashi makes to provide for his child.
And so the more Shota learns about his father, the more he realizes that all Takashi does, he does out of love for him. In the end, he realizes that his father needs to be the hated Cockroach Mask because it’s the only way he can keep being a wrestler and remain the happy, kind-hearted man who takes him to the public bath. It may not exactly be a fairy-tale ending, but it’s real and human.
Based on popular series of children picture books by writer Masahiro Itabashi and illustrator Hisanori Yoshida, published between 2011 and 2018, My Dad Is a Heel Wrestler offers something for the whole family, but it is made primarily with younger audiences in mind. Set in a country when many children may, at some point of their lives, wonder if their fathers love them more than their jobs, the movie ultimately brings fathers and children together by helping them understand that love comes in many forms.
As we come to see in the movie, a loving Japanese father may not be someone who spends as much time as possible with his kids, but it’s someone who sacrifices at the altar of employment, giving all of himself to his job, just so that his family can lead an easier life. It might not be the kind of “father’s love” that many people would easily recognize, but it’s love nonetheless. And if the audience has to learn that lesson, it’s better that they learn it from a movie with plenty of exciting wrestling scenes performed by professionals, including the ultra popular, multiple titles winner Tanahashi, who cut off his trademark long hair for the role. And that’s beautiful because, as we have already established, in Japan, at times, sacrifice is the ultimate sign of love.
Japanese title: Papa wa Warumono Chanpion (パパはわるものチャンピオン)
Cast: Hiroshi Tanahashi, Yoshino Kimura, Kokoro Terada, Riisa Naka
Director: Kyohei Fujimura
Text by Cezary Strusiewicz