Gaea Girls [ガイア・ガールズ]

Directed by Kim Longinotto & Jano Williams

2000, 100 minutes (Available on DVD from 25 January 2010 as double release: Gaea Girls/Shinjuku Boys).

Review by Susan Meehan

Building on the success of “Divorce Iranian Style” and “Shinjuku Boys,” Longinotto and Williams spent three months in Japan filming female pro-wrestlers ‘interned’ at the Gaea Girls’ stark boot camp,  unobtrusively allowing stories to evolve in documentary style. ‘Gaea Girls’ corresponds to a sumo wrestlers’  ‘stable’ or training centre, perhaps, and the young girls sacrifice any independence, freedom and privacy they may have in their all-consuming quest to become top wrestlers. They sleep in bunk beds in less than salubrious conditions and train all the time.

Early on in the documentary we witness a stomach-churning pro-wrestling match (many more follow) in which the women fighters don’t hold back – from belly-flopping onto the prostrate adversary, already flattened and knocked to the ground by powerful drop kicks to the face and body; to pulling one another’s hair and to using a lit burner on the other’s face, the violence is extreme and no punches are spared. At this point I was ready to leave the cinema and the scenes of women with blood-caked hair, split lips and blood-splattered faces well behind, but thought I would be rewarded by seeing the film through to the end.

The documentary goes on to focus on Takeuchi, a budding wrestler in her late teens whose abiding ambition it is to debut as a professional. Takeuchi has to pass a tough trial, i.e., undergo a series of bouts against the rest of the Gaea Girls to prove her mettle and to this end is constantly training.  Early on in the documentary Takeuchi comes across as a spirited personality excitedly revealing that she wants to become a pro-wrestler in order to prove herself and become “somebody,” but becomes rather taciturn and troubled as the film progresses and her training intensifies.

Takeuchi’s commitment – given the tough training, the brutal telling off by top wrestler and mentor Chigusa Nagayo, a powerfully built woman and advocate of ‘tough love’ who has taken this group of young girls under her wings – is truly incredible.  Failing her first trial, Takeuchi is not allowed to become professional as, not cutting the mustard,  she would discredit the Gaea Girls. The pasting she receives during the punishing trial bouts and the abuse she receives from Chigusa for not fighting back are hard to stomach.

All in all I did not fully regret watching the film in its entirety as the documentary is original in focusing on and highlighting a little-known aspect of Japan and the characters are truly interesting. What I really wanted to know, however, was where these girls had come from and what had set them on the path to train in such a violent, nasty and bloody sport, albeit it a popular one given the number of enthusiastic followers and spectators. What would their lives have become otherwise and what were they trying to prove? What illusions did they have about pro-wrestling?  What did their families say, if anything? Were they running away from something?  Sadly, these questions were left unanswered.

In the Q&A following the screening at the Renoir Cinema on 31 January 2010, Longinotto said that pro-wrestling can be a vehicle for young Japanese women to do something for themselves; it is this which I found most difficult to swallow.  To my mind the poor girls in the documentary were nothing more than indentured wrestlers at boot camp living on a pittance, being physically and visually abused and encouraged to become professional, no doubt, in order to rake in money for Gaea and bring them more exposure and sponsorship. It is hard to believe that the girls had many other options in life.

Takeuchi eventually does turn professional, most certainly a result of the depletion of new recruits through absconding, and does not last long. In her debut professional bout she is left reeling by the Gaea Girls’ own Satomura and only manages to fight a few more months, we were told at the Q&A, before retiring and finding work at a petrol station.

These seem to be impressionable girls without many options, somehow lured in by an almost cultish outfit masquerading as a sporting centre. Perhaps fame and glamour are attained in some cases, but at what senseless cost.

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