JANO Williams and Kim Longinotto’s documentary Gaea Girls (2000) makes the punishing teacher-student relationship in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash look relatively friendly in comparison.
Shockingly violent, the film shows us the rigorous inner workings of an all-female professional-wrestling training camp. Stretched to their limits – both physically and mentally – trainee wrestlers are left to sink (perhaps more appropriately drown) or swim as they fight for a debut match in the promotion Gaea Japan.
It makes for extremely tough and, at times, strangely poetic vérité viewing. Longinotto’s camera intimately observes the training free of narration, leaving us to soak in the wince-worthy visuals and the disturbing sounds of sobbing, screaming and bodies hitting canvas.
Occasionally, we take a breather from the intensity of the training camp setting to look at the tranquil rural surroundings, the camera slowly pulling round to reveal the small warehouse that homes the Gaea Japan training. The whacky world of wrestling hidden among Japanese agriculture.
The training we witness is extraordinarily tough. Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese wrestling companies traditionally place greater emphasis on physicality over theatrics. Blood, sweat and perseverance mean more than fancy costumes, personas and catchphrases – not to say that American wrestling is in any way soft (see Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Barry Blaustein’s Beyond The Mat for proof of that).
This style – called ‘Puroresu’ or ‘strong style’ – means any potential Gaea Japan prospect must have immaculate conditioning and be able to withstand a barrage of in-ring punishment. The latter of which provides moments that will either leave your blood boiling or your head turning away in disgust.
In charge of ensuring the trainees are ready to maintain the standards of Gaea Japan is Nagayo Chigusa. A vetertan wrestler and founder of the promotion, Nagayo sees her students as her own children and is parent that deals in seriously tough – if not plainly cruel – love. Think Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket – only way more violent.
‘If you let us down again, I will kill you,’ is Nagayo’s warm greeting to one trainee returning for a second – and final – chance at the camp. Of course, the young trainee does not last long and she is so scared of Nagayo’s wrath that she runs away in the middle of the night. An incident so bizarre and unsettling that it is almost comical.
This trainee is not the only one to wilt under sheer fear of Nagayo. Another young, fresh-faced girl arrives along with her sceptical mother. ‘There are no horrible women here,’ the mother is reassured. But almost as soon as she leaves, her daughter receives a tongue-lashing and smack from her imposing trainer. After watching a brutal sparring session, the once hopeful youngster packs her bags and leaves for home in a flood of tears.
With recruits dropping like swatted flies, there is one girl that stands a chance of making it. Takeuchi, a smiley-faced and timid trainee, has earnt the opportunity to undergo ‘tests’ in the ring with experienced trainers. Here she must prove she can take a convincing beating – and dish one out.
These ‘tests’ provide the films most outrageous moments. In more than one sparring session, the wrestling turns into an excuse to beat up and make an example of Takeuchi. A flying drop-kick from one coach causes a sickening thud and leaves Takeuchi bloody faced. Horrifying. Yet it still pales in comparison to the eventual in-ring showdown with Nagayo.
Confronted with the unforgiving verbal and physical intimidation of Nagayo, the weak are weeded out – and the strong are broken down. The dreams of ‘shining’ in the ring and ‘being someone’ that Takeuchi speaks of at the start of the film come at a heavy, nightmarish price.
Much like Whiplash and Full Metal Jacket, we are probed into asking ourselves whether this type of brutal approach is justifiable – even if it is sometimes necessary. It is only at the end of the documentary that we break from the film’s observational style to hear directly from Nagayo about the reasons behind her cruel methods.
Forget Netflix’s GLOW, Gaea Girls is a true look at the gruelling and dark side of women’s wrestling. A film that is as compelling as it is troubling.