Back in the early 1980s, Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka formed a professional wrestling tag-team known as The Crush Girls. Part of the second generation of Japanese professional wrestlers, the Crush Girls proved so impossibly popular that they changed the face of professional women’s wrestling and raised the bar for female wrestlers all over the world. Despite their immense popularity, the Crush Girls split up in 1989 when they reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 27. Six years later, Chigusa Nagayo came out of retirement to found Gaea Japan, an entirely new wrestling promotion in which she would also play out a long-standing grudge with her one-time partner Lioness Asuka. Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ Gaea Girls is a documentary filmed in and around the training facilities of Gaea Japan that looks at how aspiring female wrestlers cope not only with the traditionally male-dominated world of professional wrestling but also with Chigusa Nagayo’s ideas about parenting.
Gaea Girls begins with Nagayo making radio appearances in an effort to talk up her imminent confrontation with long-standing nemesis Lioness Asuka. Like all call-outs in professional wrestling, the interview is an exercise in theatrical bluster as Nagayo talks about how she needs to get revenge on Asuka and how she will lose her name and her history if she does not win the match. The film then moves on to footage of Nagayo giggling and cracking jokes with a hairdresser before transporting us to the arena where Nagayo swaggers into the ring and brutally beats her opponent before belching fire to win the match and re-claim her name. Gaea Girls is very much a film about gender but the disconnect between Nagayo the swaggering tough-girl and Nagayo the smiley mother hen who worries about her hairdo is really only the outermost layer of a remarkably subtle and affecting film.
Despite the bombast of the live performances, Gaea Japan is revealed to be a tiny little outfit operating out of a small industrial estate in the Japanese countryside. The training camp’s absolute lack of glamour sets up a wonderful contrast between the real lives of professional wrestlers and the heightened theatricality of their live performances. In fact, Longinotto and Williams make extensive use of the training camp’s rural location as the daily travails of the professional wrestlers are quite explicitly compared to the daily travails of the farmers working next-door: Sports entertainment is just another day job, yo!
The wrestlers’ day routines are beautifully observed by directors who are happy to let the images speak for themselves: Young women cleaning the kitchen, young women reading magazines on exercise cycles, young women screaming like banshees as they throw themselves into one drop-kick after another. While there are moments of real levity (stress-busting visits from a drive-by baker and the construction of an outdoor noodle-cooking facility) the culture of the training camp is one of absolute commitment and unrelentingly negative reinforcement.
Early in the film, a young woman joins the camp and apologises for having run away the last time. Naturally, this raises eyebrows as the atmosphere up until that point had appeared quite positive. Visibly unfit, the young woman is put on a physical training regimen and watched over by more senior students who neither encourage her nor do anything to correct her when she does the exercises incorrectly. When she later complains that she has hurt her back, her instructor blankly responds that she can do 200 more squats and then call it a day.
We later see one of the senior students sparring with a couple of other seniors who respond to her efforts with a brutal dressing down in which they demand to know who trained her to drop-kick so listlessly and how could she possibly expect to pass her test and become a professional if she performs like that? Of course she got injured, she’s completely incompetent and if that had happened in a real match then the opposition would have most-likely killed her in the ring! The young woman is in floods of tears and not for the last time. In fact, when the young woman first tries to pass her test (a gruelling endurance test in which she is expected to wrestle against three increasingly-adept opponents without ever letting her energy levels drop or her technical prowess slide) she gets drop-kicked in the face and is dressed down in front of the entire school with blood pouring from her wounded mouth. Again, the assessment is brutal to the point of cruelty… the instructors not only question her commitment but also her emotional state and the only reason she manages to stay in the programme is because she follows Chigusa Nagayo out to her car whilst grovelling and begging for another chance to prove herself.
These scenes are difficult to watch as any layperson who watches the sparring can see that the young woman is throwing herself into every move with as much passion and energy as she can muster, at the end of every bout she is not just dripping with sweat but literally gasping for breath. The public dressing-down that follows the sparring is no longer motivational but designed to break down a psychological blockage that may not actually exist. As anyone who has been a part of an institution reliant upon negative reinforcement will tell you; not everyone responds to this type of pressure and the young women who literally run away in the middle of the night are proof of the limitations inherent in this type of unbalanced and inflexible approach to training. Given how many apprentices Gaea Japan appears to burn through, you have to wonder why they stick with this type of system and the answer comes in interviews with Chigusa Nagayo.
Despite her swaggering tough-girl ring persona and her equally intimidating training persona, Nagayo actually sees the students as her children. As founder and primary star of Gaea Japan, she is not just professionally invested in turning these young women into wrestlers, she also cares deeply about their well-being and talks quite a bit about how much it pains her to humiliate and demean her students. Her rationale for a training regime based entirely upon negative reinforcement is that she hated her father… her father was a professional soldier who trained Nagayo using a similarly cruel suite of techniques but rather than forcing her to leave home, his many acts of cruelty served to shape her professional persona and encouraged her to find strength in abject hatred.
The interesting thing about this piece of back story is the fact that, despite believing herself to be something of a caring mother hen, Nagayo chose to model herself upon her cruel father rather than embracing what she evidently believes is her true character.
One of the most important concepts in professional wrestling is kayfabe. Kayfabe is best understood as the elements of professional wrestling that are put on for the benefit of the public. Thus, while the rivalries between wrestlers and the idea that the matches do not have pre-determined outcomes may be part of kayfabe, the actual physical actions in the ring and the prominence of certain wrestlers are not. As time has passed and professional wrestling has become increasingly more sophisticated, the nature of kayfabe has evolved to keep up with increasingly jaded audiences. Many people look down their noses at professional wrestling because they believe it is ‘fake’ but in truth, professional wrestling simply entertains people in a different way to most sports. Wrestling fans are no more ‘tricked’ by professional wrestlers than people who read novels or go to see films. Indeed, suspension of disbelief is absolutely central to professional wrestling and the discipline of kayfabe lies in maintaining a persona that everyone knows to be fictitious.
Watching Gaea Girls, I was struck by the similarities between wrestlers performing particular personalities for the sake of their audiences and people performing genders for the sake of people around them. As I pointed out my piece about Shinjuku Boys, there is a very real sense in which the employees of the New Marilyn were playing up to the gender expectations of customers who would spend a lot of their time talking through their reasons for thinking of the employees of the club as men. What both films illustrate is the fact that, far from being a set of absolutes, genders are vague and abstract concepts that only acquire substance through acts of negotiation and performance: Nagayo walks, talks, and looks very masculine but this is only a performance that she maintains in a professional context. Like the employees of the New Marilyn Club, her preferred performance is considerably more nuanced.
It is also interesting to note that the wrestlers who do get on as part of the Gaea Japan training regimen are those who seem most willing to follow Nagayo’s example in setting aside their feminine characteristics. For example, the most successful junior wrestler in the camp is Meiko Satomura whose hair is very closely cropped but if you look at photos of Satomura taken more recently, you will find someone who is far more comfortable with the trappings of traditional femininity. Thinking about it now, I wonder whether the real purpose of the negative reinforcement might not actually be the punishment of feminine characteristics as all of the girls who run away are quite traditionally ‘girly’ and the bullied younger wrestler is repeatedly told to cut her hair before finally being accepted as a professional.
Beautifully shot and sometimes genuinely difficult to watch, Gaea Girls is a fascinating study of a group of women who are trying to build careers and lives at what was the bleeding edge of Japanese attitudes to gender. Indeed, part of what makes this film such uncomfortable viewing is the fact that many of the young women who left home to learn from Chigusa Nagayo did so because they found something inspirational in her actions and persona. Many of these young women run away because they simply cannot cope with the institutional culture that Nagayo has created around herself but it is interesting to note that the real venom and urge to punish and humiliate transgression comes not from Nagayo but from a father who clearly had his own reasons for encouraging hatred in his own child.