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Rikidozan is a fascinating figure, a man whose very existence captures the schizophrenic love-hate of the self imbibed in the Japanese psyche. Emerging at a crucial period in Japan's post-war turmoil, he galvanised national pride by defeating bigger, stronger Americans one after another. The naivety of the ordinary masses buying into this manufactured folklore seems twee observed from this distance, but hunger for some kind of hope and national pride in those desperate times is impossible for current generations to imagine.
The film does a good job of depicting Rikidozan's rise to fame, his desire to succeed against discrimination and hierarchical relations, and the flaws in the man's character that would contribute to his downfall. Kyung-gu Sol in the lead perfectly captures the character. His Japanese is flawless, and he exhibits the hybridity of Rikidozan in his every gesture. Tatsuya Fuji as the oyabun who funds Rikidozan's path to glory is something we rarely see in films about Japan, a well-rounded, complex yakuza. He sees Riki as a business investment, but also has a surrogate parent-like affection for the man. But he never forgets his role as boss and mentor, and one of the tensions of the story is quite how long this man will go on protecting Riki.
Miki Nakatani as put-upon wife Aya is quiet and mysterious. The film becomes more interesting every time she appears, but unfortunately her role is under-written, and the part does now do her acting skills justice.
The first 60 minutes expertly chronicle Riki's rise, the odds he faces, and the significance of all this to post-war Japan. In the last 30 minutes the film sags and a sentimental tone creeps in. This culminates in a last scene that literally looks like it was shot in a giant snow-globe, with toe-curling melodramatic music to match. A tighter edit, and more cinematic approach, could have made this tale truly memorable. However, while the story of Rikidozan grips you, the patchy pacing and average technical skills on display are slightly disappointing.
At a time when banal nationalism is rampant in Japan, Rikidozan's story is a sobering reminder of the complex realities that confound Japanese identity. On a human scale, it is also a competent depiction of how one man's hubris can lead to a fall.
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