Story: Kim Shin-rak (Seol Kyeong-gu) is learning how to wrestle at a sumo school in Japan towards the end of
World War II. Due to him being of Korean descent, however, he is harassed by his comrades and isn't given the chance to
become Yokozuna. Fortunately, the yakuza boss and wrestling agent Kanno (Tatsuya Fuji) takes the Korean under his
wing. Kim starts going by the name Rikidozan and even gets the woman he was interested in. Aya (Miki Nakatani) gives
him the support he needs on his twisting path, and he needs it bitterly as he realizes that he will never be given
the chance to succeed, all because of his heritage, after 10 hard years of training. Rather by chance he hears about
a Western trend called "pro-wrestling" and decides to quit sumo in order to travel to America. Still backed by Kanno
Rikidozan is able to celebrate one huge success after another in the States. He returns to Japan a rich man and
introduces the unknown sport of pro-wrestling to the Japanese with the help of Kanno. The public is enthusiastic
about this Rikidozan, a man who is able to give them a bit of their national pride back after the war that was
lost. But Rikidozan has to secretly fight against his own enormous ego and his hotblooded temper that always seems
to be getting him in trouble...
Review: This is the second biography picture about a Japanese hero who was actually Korean, after "Fighter in
the Wind", which Korea tries to tackle. Interestingly enough, or maybe we should say consistently enough, "Rikidozan"
was filmed almost entirely in Japanese, which is why only few Koreans will actually go for it. So it's no wonder that
"Rikidozan" wasn't exactly a hit in Korea. Apparently Song Hae-seong's creation, like his signature piece "Failan" a
well-known name amongst lovers of the drama genre, was produced in order to become an export product to Japan, even
though the film is visibly a Korean production. By means of a large budget, Song's film is able to transport us to
the Japan of the 40s to 60s, thanks to great costumes and wonderful sets that were put together with a great love
of detail. Next to the fantastic technical aspects however, Seol Kyeong-gu aims to please with his amazing physical
and artistic feat. Without him, "Rikidozan" would only be half of what it is, in part because director Song isn't
able to fit in good dramatic scenes that work well with the rest of the story.
The film starts out with an introduction of Kim Shin-rak's life. Shin-rak, a victim of repeated physical reprimands and harassment from fellow students at his sumo school, is a wretched young man. However, his iron will already shines through. He wants to become someone big, achieve something big, because only then will he be truly happy, or so he believes. Because his ancestry seems to be blocking his way to greatness in the traditional sport of sumo he is forced to look for other ways to achieve his goal. He doesn't realize this until 10 years have passed and without the support of his wife Aya Rikidozan probably would have fallen into pieces.
So Rikidozan turns to Western wrestling and is able to rise up quite quickly. This turnabout in Rikidozan's situation comes rather unexpectedly and rushed but also shows us what the director is trying to focus on, the man Rikidozan. He definitely isn't a man who is easy for the audience to empathize with, he has to many faults for that, but Seol is able to take these faults and the clumsiness of the character and transform them into the actual strong point of the film. A small emotional gap to the audience, however, remains.
Seol Kyeong-gu ("Peppermint Candy", "Oasis", "Public Enemy") pumped up several extra kilos of muscles for his role, making him hard to recognize. Furthermore, he even learned Japanese for this film, or at least practiced his script so much that no accent remains detectable. His achievements inside of the ring are also impressive. No stunt double in sight. Seol proves his willingness to do anything for the right role. The filming was definitely painful, no doubt about it, but Seol is able to show some truly inspiring moves. Clothesline, dropkick, back-supplex, you name it, Seol does it all himself. The wrestling we get to see is, of course, old school, not to be compared with the elaborate sequences of today's WWE wrestling, but in return these moves actually work. One small scene shows a reporter questioning if the results aren't already decided on from the beginning. Rikidozan's answer might lead the ignorant to believe that this isn't the case and the following scenes could just be attempts at bribery for him to lose. However, those that have some insight into the soap-opera of today's wrestling know of course that the winner is decided long before the match bell rings...
Rikidozan has one big problem, his great pride along with his gigantic ego. His greatest victory would have been to lose once in the ring, but he doesn't possess that kind of strength. He's also quite vain and stubborn, making it clear that he won't have a happy ending. And on top of all this he also has problems with alcohol and prescription medication, granting him with a paranoia of being followed by his rivals who are all out to kill him. He might not even be so far off the mark, for not only does he make lots of enemies by displaying his pride, he also loses his only friends, for instance Kanno, aptly portrayed by Tatsuya Fuji.
Miki Nakatani ("Memories of Matsuko", "Ring") plays Rikidozan's devoted wife. She emphasizes the emotional scenes of the film very well and is Rikidozan's only foothold in his worst times, and yet he still cheats on her behind her back. Through her we are able to see what a despicable person Rikidozan can be, but Seol Kyeong-gu retains a certain complexity to the character, giving it a depth not easy to pertain at first glance.
Director Song brings a certain continuity to the film so that the necessary jumps are never too stark in contrast. This is quite a feat, there being after all three decades to cover. Unfortunately, "Rikidozan" isn't as emotionally moving as it could have been. We can be thankful that the director is trying to bring the biography of a tragic figure to the big screen instead of trying to wrench a few tears from the audience but there are quite a few moments in which the audience could have been drawn more emotionally into the story. At least there is enough reason to grieve towards the end of the film, when it becomes clear that Rikidozan was really only in pursuit of happiness and a reason to be able to smile in a country that denied him to do so because of his heritage...
"Rikidozan" impresses with it's fantastic images and artistic performances, Seol Kyeong-gu clearly representing the head. Wrestling fans are sure to be more than satisfied with this picture, but beyond all this, this drama is a successful, if not exceptional biography of an interesting man who is clearly only human and certainly not the national hero many Japanese would see him as.