Crazy Japanese movies tend to come in two varieties: Most intriguing are those gonzo sensory assaults that challenge Western filmmaking traditions (think Takashi Miike); less effective are the relatively conventional dramas that exploit lost-in-translation local traditions. “Gachi Boy Wrestling With a Memory” belongs to the latter category, pinning a routine underdog story to the weird world of Japanese wrestling clubs, where college kids dress up like luchadors and stage choreographed WWE-style matches. With little beyond novelty and a rousing finale to recommend Norihiro Koizumi’s soph feature for non-Japanese auds, this pseudo-inspirational oddity seems best suited for midnight and cult-movie fame.
The “Memory” in the movie’s title refers to a far-fetched narrative device by which brainy law student Igarashi (Osamu Mukai) wakes up each morning with an acute case of amnesia, remembering nothing of what happened the day before. Pic unveils the condition rather late, leaving auds to wonder why Igarashi is constantly snapping Polaroids and making notes in his journal — his “Memento”-like way of keeping his future self posted on developments in his life.
And so the pic’s kooky premise comes into focus: If Japanese wrestling clubs pay their respects to the sport by staging elaborately choreographed matches, what would happen if someone who couldn’t remember the routines were to step into the ring? While his mates stick to their fake moves, earnest Igarashi fights for real, the unpredictable bouts rendered all the more amusing by his beyond-silly “Poison Arrow” costume.
Team captain Asako, an adorable potential love interest played with a cartoonishly high-pitched voice by Saeko, discovers Igarashi’s secret, but he doesn’t dare tell the others about his condition. Left in the dark, the ragtag team is delighted with the results, since their shows draw fresh crowds and attract the attention of a rival wrestling league. Suddenly, Igarashi and his crew are winning real matches, not realizing they’re being set up for humiliation with a big match in front of the whole school.
Much of “Gachi Boy’s” appeal is culture-specific, calling for an acting style that overstates every emotion; Mukai’s central perf amounts to grinning cartoonishly throughout. Between its corny setup and drawn-out buildup, “Gachi Boy” has no business yielding such a genuinely exciting climax, and yet Koizumi’s “Rocky”-like resolution proves as satisfying as it is contrived, tapping into the universal fear of waking up unprepared to meet life’s challenges. Igarashi shows up for the final bout having forgotten everything he’s learned, but is determined to prove himself all the same.
Between the music, the energy and the certainty that the cast are enacting the wrestling moves for real (no CG or trickery here), the final scene packs genuine excitement, which nearly excuses the fact that the pic ends abruptly after the match plays out.