The Incredibly Bad TV Show: In Bed With Nastassja

10 pm on a Saturday night, and here I am, tucked up with a large supply of junk food, a packet of ProPlus, and the world’s most beautiful woman. And you wonder why TC is infrequent. But sadly for my ego, Nastassja’s presence is limited solely to two video-tapes: ‘Bella Mafia’, recorded when it was shown on C5 during the World Cup, and ‘The Ring’, purchased from the Virgin Megastore.

These are part of her second assault on Fortress Hollywood. Despite movies like ‘Cat People’, and a slew of generally favourable reviews for Kinski, her first attack on the hearts and minds of the American audience was repelled at some cost. Specifically, two movie studios: Zoetrope, who did ‘One From the Heart’, and Goldcrest, sunk by ‘Revolution’. With a reputation as box-office poison, she retreated to Europe, for a decade of art movies, marriage and motherhood.  Following her divorce, she returned for another try, and after perking up the low-budget action pic ‘Crackerjack’, had a decent hit alongside Charlie Sheen in ‘Terminal Velocity’. Since then, it’s been back to her usual pattern of critical success (‘One Night Stand’) and commercial failure (‘Father’s Day’).

There is, however, one addition to her bow, in the form of TV miniseries, with the two titles mentioned above prime examples. Running almost three hours each, excluding commercials, it seemed sensible to schedule a double-bill for purposes of comparison, so having cleared the decks of housemates, and loaded up at the supermarket, I took a deep breath and plunged into an all-night session of high-quality American television…

Bella Mafia

Nice start: two minutes in, and Nasti’s character, Sophia, is already getting her knee sucked by her boyfriend. Despite showing admirable taste in calling her “the most beautiful creature in the world”, he’s about to leave Sicily for Harvard. Unfortunately, he ends up taking Kidnapping 1.0.1, because his father is mob boss Don Luciano (Dennis Farina), whose rival Peter Carollo wants in on the New York docks. The good news: Michael is returned. The bad news: he’s slightly lacking in the pulse department. Cue Luciano swearing a blood oath to kill, dismember, and otherwise discomfit those responsible. Oh, and Carollo has a Dark Secret, in the shape of a crippled son locked away in a monastery. This will be important later, trust me.

Meanwhile, Nastassja is pregnant by her dead boyfriend – it’s like a flashback to ‘Tess’, seeing her toiling in the fields at a home for unmarried mothers, a peasant banged up then rejected by the local nobility. Unlike Hardy’s heroine, however, she does get into the family, after being almost run over by another son, Tino the stutterer (conveniently coincidental car crash #1). Sophia’s son has been adopted, so in yet another ‘Tess’ conjunction, she marries Tino instead, without telling him of her dark secret.

Their wedding is populated by a lot of American men in suspiciously snappy suits, with their molls and daughters. However, Don Luciano is making enemies because of his continued refusal to work with Carollo, strongly suspecting him of being his son’s killer. Meanwhile the rest of his offspring are also getting married, more or less respectably – “less” definitely being the case for the one who gives casino dealer Moira (Jennifer Tilly) a bottle of champagne, provoking the immortal exchange:

  • “That’s an awfully big bottle”
  • “I’m sure you can take all of it…”

At least, I think that’s what he said.

11pm, and the first fringes of tiredness drift across my view. Sophia’s adopted son, Luca, runs away and, in one of those random events that only happen in TV mini-series, appears in the same place as Carollo’s crippled son Giorgio, whom he befriends. [I said he’d be important. Regular viewers of this sort of thing can probably tell where the cross-family friendship is going to end up] But it’s okay, as Sophia is pregnant again herself.

Years fly by without anyone – least of all Nastassja – really looking older. So before we know it, Luca is in his late teens, and when Giorgio dies, his dying request is for Carollo to adopt Luca, who has been his only friend. When Carollo gets arrested soon afterwards, Don Luciano offers to testify against him, and Luca goes after Luciano, totally unaware it’s actually his family he’s killing. Indeed, Luca murders every male in the family, which seems a bit excessive, even to his foster father, who disowns him. Here endeth part one. I’m yawning, but bearing up.

The second part of this exercise in “Mafia girl power” was shown the same night as Scotland rolled over against Morocco, so I actually saw some of it, having given up on the football after Morocco’s third goal went in. At the start, with all the Luciano men dead, the other families are trying to pick the bones clean; the Don’s widow (Vanessa Redgrave – who now seems to have aged several decades since part one) tries to shoot Carollo in court, but misses. Luca, peeved at being disowned, does it for her, then gets knocked over by a car carrying his mother and aunts (conveniently coincidental car crash #2),  giving him a brief sojourn in the family home. Oh, the irony… He then leaves, as his actions have, understandably, put him high up on the Mafia shit-list.

Midnight. The first ProPlus tablet goes down, as the girls move to New York. Luca is falling in love with one of his cousins, Rosa (who looks pleasntly like Brooke Shields). Hmm…this ‘Something Weird’ video catalogue has plenty of interesting titles, doesn’t it? Anyway, the Lucianos offer to hand over the family property to their rivals, in exchange for the names of whoever killed their men, but the Mafia try and take the deeds by force, only for Luca to rescue them.

Oh, dear: Luca now turns his attentions to Mummy, adding an Electra Complex to the Needlessly Complex, already present in the form of an irrelevant subplot which has the widows trying to steal casino chips. But after Sophia discovers from the police that Luca killed her child, husband and various other relatives, the vengeful women drug him, tie him up, and stab him. Only then does Sophia find a locket, which proves he was her son – though I could be mistaken, since I don’t remember the locket ever being mentioned before. Sophia ends up as head of the family and at Rosa’s wedding to another mob family, they start to poison those who ordered the killlings. The End.

1 am. It was only at the end that I realised the major point of the film: how Sophia changes over the course of the series. To start with, she is not so much glowing, as totally incandescent, but by the end has become absolutely cold and callous, with the “eyes of the devil”, as someone says. It’s a startling transformation, but it happens so gradually that you hardly notice; an impressive performance, by any standard. And that’s where the series’ strength really lies, in the acting. While Linda LaPlante’s story is flimsy, and probably wouldn’t make a great deal of sense looked at through critical, or even less sleepy eyes, the cast is top-notch, with Jennifer Tilly particularly outstanding. In addition to those named above, who all perform well, you’ve also got the likes of Tomas Arana (from ‘The Church’), and veteran Franco Nero in supporting roles, which makes this a heavyweight by miniseries standards. I wouldn’t mind watching it again. C+

The Ring

Fortified with a bag full of industrial-strength buttered popcorn, we plough into ‘The Ring’, beginning in 1934, with a woman committing suicide after her affair with a Jew is discovered. Ten years later, her daughter Ariana is, hey presto, Nastassja, and in her late teens. This is something of a shock given she finished ‘Bella Mafia’ pushing 40; it’s amazing what a huge age range she can cover. But at least she’s German here, something of a rarity in a career which has seen her as everything from a Dorset peasant to an American stockbroker.

In this film, she’s also seeded #1 on the cast list, although the only other person in the cast list you might know is Michael York (undergoing a bit of a renaissance after ‘Austin Powers’) who plays her father. They’ve been helping Jews escape the Nazis, but when their own plans to flee to Switzerland are discovered, they have to split up. Ariana stays behind as a (somewhat feisty) decoy, but is arrested; father and brother Gerhard make it, but father is shot on his way back across the border to get her, leaving poor Nastassja all alone, the only name star, who must hold things together for the 137 minutes still to come – at £11,99, it’s good value, if nothing else! Luckily, she’s befriended by, and eventually marries, a Luftwaffe officer, but her house is requisitioned as barracks, and the only piece of property she has left is her mother’s ring. In Zurich, Gerhard is also running out of money, and has to take on menial work to make ends meet, at least until he meets an art dealer’s daughter.

2 am. I can feel my eyes drooping; I have this horrible feeling that it won’t be long before I decide to close my eyes and just listen to the dialogue, and then… Time for another ProPlus, and a pause at one of the myriad obvious commercial breaks for a quick game of ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’, while I wait for the caffeine to kick in.

2:40 am. A helping of cheerful hack ‘n’ slash later, and it’s back to the grind – somehow, ‘Bella Mafia’ was easier viewing, maybe having breaks with actual commercials helps, or maybe it’s the lateness of the hour. I find myself getting annoyed with the terribly twee, shot-from-the-back-only love scenes, and the frequent leaping around beteen characters and countries. I wonder briefly whether a frozen Sara Lee chocolate gateau would be edible.

Adding to the confusion is a third sub-plot involving Max, one of the Jews they helped escape, but I’m not currently sure how that’s going to fit in. As the war ends, Ariana is sent to safety by her husband, and ends up having to fend for herself all the way from Berlin to Paris. Ariana’s husband dies, and Gerhard gets his girlfriend pregnant and does the decent thing i.e. moves to Paris. Ariana is caught up in the stream of refugees, though this only seems to happen so we can have the predictable scene of bro’ and sis’ nearly but not quite meeting on the road. All the shots of tired refugees shuffling aimlessly around reminded me of ‘Schindler’s List’, though fortunately without the tedious agenda.

3 am. Ariana changes her name to Anna Gorne, to get passage on a Jewish refugee ship – a Jew-boat, hohoho… A medic named Paul, with “love interest” tattoed on his forehead, turns up and takes the sickly looking Ariana in. Max also endures a “nearly but not quite meeting Ariana” encounter, while her brother changes his name, and recognises a painting, which Max had sold to his father-in-law, the art dealer. However, the most important thing to happen this hour is that I discover some Opal Fruits, and can get my blood sugar back up.

There’s one quote from ‘The Ring’ that bears repeating: “I once swore that if I ever had a child, there was nothing that could make me give him up. And nothing can.” If Nastassja says that particular line with additional feeling, it’d be no surprise, given the entanglements over the children from her marriage to Ibrahim Moussa. She even made the front of the Evening Standard, with one particularly bizarre story:

Kinski arrested ‘after fight with husband’

“Actress Nastassja Kinski has been arrested after allegedly attacking her former husband, Egyptian film producer Ibrahim Moussa. Both were arrested and booked at Los Angeles Van Nuys police station for battery. Police reports say Kinski scratched Moussa’s face with her fingernails in a brawl which is the latest development in a long-running battle between the couple for custody of their children Aljosha, 14, and Sonia, 12 Kinski, who has had them baptised Catholics, confronted Moussa in a rage when she discoverd he planned to have Aljosha circumcised for religious reasons…”

Gerhard’s wife turns out to be faking her pregnancy, so he leaves her and heads back to Berlin to look for his family, unaware they’re dead or a continent away. The time scales here, as in ‘Mafia’, are dead weird: after whipping through a decade before the first advert break, everything else has apparently been crammed into two months. This only becomes apparent when Ariana turns out to be pregnant by her Luftwaffe guy – last seen alive way back in paragraph two. Time for another pause, I think: VR Baseball [Minnesota 3, Seattle 2, as if you care]

5 am, and the final episode. I think it’s safe to say this is not Kinski’s finest hour, largely down to the material. Indeed, it’s not even her finest thirty seconds: I doubt anyone could make anything out of this sow’s ear, and watching this pap makes me realise just how edgy and extreme ‘Bella Mafia’ is in comparison. It’s a nice reminder of why I don’t watch mini-series. The scary thing is, at the start of a tape was an advert for no fewer than ~~ others, all based on Danielle Steele books. I don’t know if the novels are as cliched, shallow and, frankly, Jew-heavy as the film (it has enough annoying characters to make anyone turn anti-Semitic), but I’m certainly not going to make the effort to find out.

Back on screen, Paul throws Ariana out when he discovers the baby is not his; fortunately, Max finally tracks her down, just after the birth, and Kinski’s smile when she discovers Gerhard may still be alive is awesome – the sort men would climb mountains to see – and almost makes the preceding 140 mins worthwhile. Almost… Together, they head back to Zurich to look for him, then on to Berlin – where Gerhard is looking for them in turn, having been reconciled with his wife. And when he sees his father’s grave, with fresh flowers on it…

Forward 25 years, for no readily apparent reason, and with no explanation for what happens in the intervening decades. In perhaps the most implausible of all the coincidences which pepper this film, Kinski’s son is unknowingly going out with (pay attention, now) his mother’s second ex-husband’s daughter. But this only causes a reconciliation between Ariana and Paul; she gives her new daughter-in-law the family heirloom ring. On their honeymoon in Europe, and not far behind in the implausibility stakes, they bump into brother Gerhard in an art gallery, now sporting a dreadful goatee. He recognises the ring as his sister’s, goes back to America with them, and there’s not a dry eye in the house.

5:40 am. Four hundred and sixty minutes after starting, with the first faint traces of dawn peeping over the houses, I finally stagger to the end of a disaster movie, in the truest sense of the word. I should probably have expected no better from the man who gave Tom Hanks his debut in ‘He Knows You’re Alone’. Y’know, I love Nastassja ‘n’ all that, but…well, any chance of ‘Cat People 2’? E+

TC Travel #2: Que-bec to Basics

Montreal is a city suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. It desperately wants to be French, yet its position near the cultural behemoth of America inevitably means a lot more popular contanimation than the powers-that-be want, and there’s also the legacy of Canada’s days as a British colony. Yet this is not necessarily a bad thing; Montreal possesses many of the benefits of France and America, but largely without the occasional arrogance which can sometimes be a facet of both. Even the simplest thing reflects this internal tension, such as the humble hot-dog, omnipresent, as on American streets – except, half the time it’s called a “chien chaud”. For this is a province which actually employs Gestapo-like inspectors to go round and check the language used on signs, ensuring that the French version is bigger than the English one. Such pedantry defies belief – you can’t legislate language like this – and hearing such things certainly tends to put me off the idea of living there.

Which is a shame, as the city is otherwise very appealing, with a lot to praise. Culturally, it’s quite amazing; given its size (barely a million in Montreal itself) there is a hell of a lot going on. In July alone, there’s a big Jazz festival, and the Just For Laughs comedy festival, as well as the reason we were there, Fant-Asia, a wonderful month-long showcase for (vaguely) genre movies, which beats into a cocked hat anything London has to offer in the field. Besides, how can you dislike a city where the majority of the population sound like Antoine des Caunes?

It helped a great deal that the Canadian dollar was at a record low, so most things tended towards ‘ridiculously cheap’. Cinema-going, for example, worked out about half the price it is here, whether you went to big, new movies or rep theatres – one of the latter charged C$2.50, all day every day, which is barely one pound. This does bring home just how expensive it is in London these days; the refurbished Odeon Leicester Square now has £10 seats. Never mind leopard-skin fabric, at that price, I want real leopard. Needless to say, full advantage was taken of this value, and we averaged more than one cinema trip per day during our stay, both at Fant-Asia and regular cinemas – once we’d worked out which were showing films in English, which dubbed into French, and which in English but with French sub-titles.

DANGER These men organise the FantAsia film festival.
If you see them, do not approach them.
They will rot your brain, and corrupt your morals
to be just like theirs. You can tell, can’t you?

This was a good way of avoiding the weather, best described as chAnGEaBlE, even by British standards. Any given day almost inevitably brought sun, clouds, and thunderstorms, with hail an optional extra. It was all quite enough to freak out Chris, who lives in Arizona, where they have just two seasons – summer, and “waiting for summer”. God knows what Montreal is like in the winter, but you can get some idea from the fact that their parking meters are not placed by the road, but in the shelter of the buildings, in order to stop them getting buried…

Shopping in general was also reasonable, albeit confused by the application of “goods and services tax”, “harmonised sales tax”, “taxe sur les produits et services” and “provincial sales tax” (the first three are actually one and the same), which were never included in the price shown, seemed to vary on a semi-random basis, and were in any event reclaimable on the way out of the country if you spent enough. To balance this horrendously Americanised idea, the currency was solidly British, with dollar coins, notes whose colours varied with their value, and even a bi-metal $2 coin – good practice for the £2 one introduced shortly after I came back…

One great idea which London could do well to copy, is the massive network of shopping malls which is buried under the city, linked together by the Metro. There must be a couple of thousand shops down there, not including the restaurants, cinemas, and just about any other service you care to name. It would be quite easy to wander around for days without ever seeing daylight, and it’s a great way of bypassing the savagely wintry weather. It does, however, imply a certain geological stability, so I don’t think it’s a concept which will catch on in California or Tokyo.

The central street, St.Catherine, has a distinct wealth gradient – walking along from one end to another, it gradually evolves from seedy and run-down, through commercially brisk, to disturbingly up-market, like a core section of Montreal’s economic life. Along its length, however, it remains cosmopolitan, strip-clubs rubbing shoulders with boutiques in a way that would probably be impossible in many cities. It’s all quite compact, with virtually everything within walking distance, save perhaps the Olympic Stadium, and that’s easily reached on the impressive Metro trains.

There is an old part to Montreal, down by the St.Lawrence River, but it’s not something you’d really notice, and is largely indistinguishable from the rest of the city. However, the Notre Dame Basilica is a cracking structure, capable of holding 6,000 worshippers, whose interior contradicts a somewhat drab outside, and there are plenty of other nice pieces of architecture, in a variety of styles – some of the almost Art Deco stuff is especially outstanding. In this aspect, it probably has more in common with European cities than most North American ones.

On the other hand, it doesn’t appear to have much distinctive local cuisine – though you could say the same about Britain, which has similarly glued together a ragbag of cultures. You’re not stuck for choice: the food court in the bottom of the Eaton Centre mall alone offers everything from massive smoked meat sandwiches to Japanese noodles. As is by now traditional, we tried the local kebabs, and found them to be smaller than the British variety, and completely wrapped in the pitta – a snack rather than a meal. The beer front was much the same as America, with Molson dominating the market (whatever you do, avoid Molson Hi-Dry, a beer possessing the temperament, taste and effect of bottled rattlesnake), but with a slate of real ales to track down and try out: Sleeman’s was eminently drinkable.

We had a great apartment, in a complex run by a brother and sister, five minutes from St. Catherine. It was self-catering, but I think we only cooked one meal there – hell, who bothers with things like washing-up when you’re on holiday? – surviving on a combination of eating out and junk food. Plenty of supermarkets and stores around, though I was fairly freaked by the tank of live lobsters, largely because I never realised what BIG buggers they are. Respect to their claws.

I was there for the World Cup Final, and even found a station which took the BBC commentary feed, so enjoyed the dulcet tones of John Motson, not some American going about “being double-teamed in the red area” – though generally, the North American coverage of the World Cup was better than expected. ABC got round the advertisement problem by having, say, a Nike logo in the top left of the screen; every ten minutes they’d quickly say “this portion of the game is brought to you commercial-free by Nike”, then get right back to the match. A neat solution to a thorny problem. Given the result, Montreal was probably almost as good as being in France itself. Every goal was greeted with cheers, and people rushed out onto their balconies and waved flags, while the final result led to a procession of cars in the street, with much, typically French horn-blowing.

This kinda sums up Montreal; American openness with Gallic flair, and the result is pleasing, albeit radically different to New Orleans, where French and American cultures also mix. Must be the British influence, plus perhaps the chilling impact of the climate. Regardless, it is a city which works, managing to welcome visitors without sacrificing itself to them, and there’s every chance that I’ll be back in future – perhaps for 1999’s Fant-Asia festival…

“Banned From Television” = Banned From Video

In February, the BBFC announced, with much trumpeting, that ‘The Exorcist’ had finally been passed on video – a decision undeniably linked to the recent departure of chief censor James Ferman, who gave the film considerably more credit than it was worth. But the BBFC giveth, and the BBFC taketh away. At virtually the same time, and with a great deal less publicity, they refused two titles video certificates: Lucio Fulci’s ‘Cat in the Brain’ and the mondo documentary ‘Banned From Television’. The former was really no surprise – Fulci’s reputation alone meant that it was likely to get scrutiny, even though it’s nearer to the Peter Jackson school of excessive gore than anything which would threaten the fabric of society. [A bigger shock was that anyone actually wanted to release this tedious piece of dreck] The latter, however, perhaps deserves more investigation. First, here’s the press release sent out by the Board, explaining their decision:

“As the authority designated by Parliament with the responsibility for classifying videos under the Video Recordings Act 1984, the Board must determine whether or not a video is suitable for a classification certificate to be issued to it, with special regard to the likelihood of video works being viewed in the home. In making this decision, the Board must also have special regard, amongst other relevant factors, to any harm that may be caused to potential viewers or, through their behaviour, to society because of the manner in which the work deals with criminal behaviour, illegal drugs, violence, horror or sex.

The Board carefully considered this video in the light of these tests. The main consideration for the Board was the question of harm referred to above. In short, does the work have the potential for anti- social influence?

In the Board’s view it does. It is a compilation of scenes of extremely violent death, injury and mutilation, many of which are repeated in slow-motion. The commentary draws attention to the grislier aspects and in effect invites enjoyment at human suffering. The inclusion also of sex scenes reinforces the impression that the purpose of the video is to provide entertainment. There is no attempt to justify the images by placing the incidents in any other journalistic or educational context. Whatever current relevance the images might have had when they were originally photographed has been lost in the general compilation of horrors. The Board is conscious that a particular genre that has always been identified as entirely unacceptable is that of so-called ‘snuff movies’. Their main identifying feature is that at least one of the participants is actually killed. Banned From Television is only different in that, instead of a death being created for the work, actual death and injury is collated from a wide range of pre-existing sources to create the work.

The Board has concluded that the video is potentially harmful because of the influence it may have on the attitudes and behaviour of a significant proportion of likely viewers. The instinct of concern and compassion for the suffering of others is a basic social necessity. So is respect for the dignity of real human life. By presenting actual human death and mutilation as entertainment, the work, in the Board’s view, has the potential to erode these instincts. There is a danger of it falling into the hands of young and impressionable persons (whatever its classification) and of some significant brutalising effect on their attitude to human life and pain.

The Board has considered the possibility of cuts as a remedy for these difficulties. It has concluded, however, that they would be unlikely to modify the tone and effect of the work acceptably.”

Naturally, having read the above, it became my moral duty to see this film, and it proved no problem to pick up a copy on a recent trip to the States – alternatively, why not order over the Internet, at Three volumes available, all major credit cards accepted. [The irrelevance of the BBFC grows on a daily basis…]

My dislike of Mondo movies (and indeed, Mondo TV like “Police! Camera! Action!”) has previously been documented; partly because you need no real skill to put one together, and partly due to the pseudo-moralising that inevitably accompanies them. While Banned from Television is refreshingly free from such cant, it remains little more than a selection of “Bloody hell! Rewind that!” moments: a smorgasbord of crashes, police brutality, executions, animals on the rampage, criminal activity, etc. Interestingly, in some cases, sound effects have been added, so otherwise silent security video footage suddenly records gunshots. Mind you, far worse is the natural sound made when someone gets hit by a train [a clip which is on the TC website, and represents perhaps the epitome of the BH!RT! moment]. And the tape is censored, even if it says much about American attitudes that the only thing obscured, amid all the death and destruction, is a policeman’s dick.

But should it be banned? Of course not. This isn’t death video per se: while some clips are patently terminal, in others damage is slight – a source of wonder in itself – and a third group are left annoyingly unresolved. The main factor for inclusion isn’t the pain or injury, which are irrelevant – far more important is the BH!RT! quotient, though the supposedly “sexy” stuff – footage of lap dancers and the audience at a 2 Live Crew concert getting carried away – is largely tedious and tame.

I’ve watched enough fake mayhem to fuel a minor Balkan war, yet the real thing still appalls. The most horrific thing I ever saw was BBC News footage of Israeli soldiers deliberately and cold-bloodedly breaking Palestinians’ legs with boulders, and most of the clips here are similarly disturbing; man’s inhumanity to man is terrible to behold. Brazil is now crossed off my list of potential holiday destinations, having seen their police’s fondness for casual brutality and summary execution. Rodney King got off very lightly.

I doubt a normal citizen would feel any “brutalising effect”; if you aren’t shocked by parts of this tape, you’re clearly there already. It’s almost a relief to be upset by things like an El Salvador cop shooting a demonstrator in the chest at point-blank range – it just shows that cinematic violence only desensitises you to…cinematic violence. Mind you, my feelings for the victims did vary: I’ve little sympathy for anyone who takes part in bull-running, and the public execution of rapists is merely justice being seen to be done.

The video is valid, because this stuff happens, and people should be free to see it happening. I’d heard about the brutality of Brazilian police, but the reports of death squads no longer seem hyperbole – and nothing drives home road-safety better than seeing a car get absolutely totalled by a juggernaut. Rather than losing “respect for the dignity of real human life”, you come away with a new-found awareness of just how fragile and delicate it is; this ain’t the movies, where cars fly through the air and people crawl out slightly grazed. Here, you get shot, you fall down, you die. The BBFC’s claim that it’s “presenting actual human death and mutilation as entertainment” is wrong: it is eye-popping and jaw-dropping, but it’s also gut-wrenching and brutal, which is exactly how violence should be. The BBFC’s decision leaves the public with no perception of it beyond that of Hollywood, and in the long run, this may be potentially more damaging.

[2021 update. And, of course, you can now watch the whole thing on YouTube, BBFC be damned…]

“The rules are…there are no rules”

Cage Fighting Women: £13.99, Quantum Diamond
Extreme Catfighting: £12.99, Visual Entertainment

Fighting women may be classified by two criteria: useless/vicious and cute/ugly. Thus, Mima Shimoda is vicious-cute, while Jane Couch is vicious-ugly. The “ladies” [quotes advisedly used] on Extreme Catfighting tend to the cute end of the spectrum, but despite their efforts, remain inept – they wouldn’t last two minutes with Couch or Shimoda. Indeed, few last that long with each other: all five fights combined total barely quarter of an hour. Most of the 80+ minute tape is interviews, slow-motion replays and analysis, interpretation and sexual innuendo from two severely annoying commentators.

The basic concept, ring-based combat for women with few rules, is sound. However, fighting skill is irrelevant, and indeed discouraged, in favour of large breasts and skimpy costumes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course, except the result is, it falls uncomfortable between sexual titillation and gratuitous violence. Thus we get repeated replays, both of escaping mammary glands and a very nasty looking injury, when one of the girls is taken down and her knee bends forward. This combination makes for queasy viewing.

Part of the problem seems to be matching fighters: all too often, an obvious imbalance in size or skill means the outcome is never in doubt. Only once do they get it right, and that bout not only goes the distance, it’s easily the best on the tape, combining boxing with ground-based grappling. A contrast in styles is one thing, and indeed part of the ethos of Ultimate Fighting is to compare different disciplines, but what we get here are far too many ‘squashes’. There’s nothing to suggest the fights are anything but legit – the brief duration points in this direction. However, one wonders whether there’s much point in watching a display of what largely amounts to martial incompetence, rather than arts.

Cage Fighting Women is the opposite, with no concession to aesthetics in its mix of kick-boxing and Ultimate-style octagon bouts. There is also no colour commentary, a mixed blessing, as I’d like some background info. Holland and Russia provide most of the participants (it’s a Dutch video) and there’s no doubting the women are chosen for skill rather than beauty – partly because the Russian ones in particular are scary. However, perversely, this tends to mean more tedious action, chary and cautious manoeuvring being the order of the day.

Also in contrast to Extreme Catfighting; only one fight is stopped, the others all go the 6- or 10-minute distance, perhaps reflecting superior training and stamina in these competitors. This is particularly apparent on defense; they know how to block and hold an opponent at bay even when they go down on the ground. This is largely only interesting from a technical point of view, for a layman like me, interested merely in an adrenalin buzz, it’s not really captivating to watch.

And this may be the most important conclusion, if any inference can be drawn here: theatrical, staged violence is far superior to the real thing. Oh, and that cute women are better fun to watch than ugly ones – but, hell, we knew that already…

American Excess

[Well, it’s a good title: why not use it more than once?]

A name like ‘Trash City’ means some video labels look down on you, and won’t give you the time of day. But to others, you’re the target audience, and when you’re talking about Quantum Leap and their nine volumes of LPWA women’s wresting…no sooner said, than a large cardboard box was sitting on the floor here at TC Towers. Not to be confused with the LPGA (which has more lesbians), the Ladies Professional Wrestling Association dates back to 1989, but is undergoing something of a renaissance recently, as these nine tapes – and hopes for an upcoming program of promotions – show. Since you can buy them in HMV, you can’t plead obscurity as an excuse, and nor is incomprehensibility a viable defence, since they’re all in English. Er, well, American, anyway…

Super Ladies’ Showdown contains the only United States pay-per-view women’s wrestling event, a 1992 Rochester, Minnesota show, featuring a contest to determine the “Japanese ladies champion”. The J-stars featured, Eagle Sawai and Harley Saito, aren’t the creme de la creme; decent enough journeymen, mind, but in footballing terms, the equivalent of Wimbledon and Middlesborough. Despite this, at 120 mins, it’s good value for money, and the contrast in styles is interesting. The Americans, relying on strength, are clearly fazed by the Japanese aerial assaults and high kicks; they have problems adapting, and look sluggish in comparison. The audience, however, are impressed: after initial boos, Saito becomes the fan favourite, even over local girl Denise Storm. Outside the tournament, the other bouts are less memorable. The Terri Power/Lady X title bout, however, has spark and life, with Power perhaps close to the level of the Japanese. Aside from the usual grey sources i.e. other fans and the Internet, this tape is probably your best chance of seeing some of the Japanese women in action.

Super Ladies Showdown 2 is actually not really connected to the first one at all, save one bout, Desiree Petersen vs Shinobu Kandori, which looks like an unused portion of the PPV. It’s probably the best bout too – I’d say Kandori is one of the top five in Japan, and it shows in her skill and aggression. Indeed, a recurring theme through the tapes is that the best wrestlers have a Japanese connection. Now, whether this is because the good ones go to Japan, or because they get good over there, I don’t know. The LPWA is certainly international, with Petersen apparently being Danish – not that this stops the audience chanting “USA! USA!” – and Australia, Mexico and Italy are also represented. Add some decent tag action with Team America (Heidi Lee Morgan and Misty Blue Simms) taking on the Nasty Girls, and overall it’s not too far short of its predecessor, despite lacking any structure.

Power Slam is another compilation; the problem with these is a tendency for the commentators to refer to previous bouts which, through the glory of editing, turn up later on, or indeed, on an entirely different tape! However, the enthusiastically opinionated Jim Cornette is great fun to listen to, always going off with loud-mouthed wit. Inside the ring, the highlight sees Reggie Bennett team up with Terri Power: in April 93, the latter was part of Dreamslam, a cross-promotion event widely regarded as the best  ever in Japanese women’s wrestling. They’re a formidable pairing, and an Italian girl, Madusa Miceli, is another good find on this tape. It climaxes in a chaotic and confused Battle Royale, with no less than twenty-four women in the ring simultaneously.

The Main Event provides a good showcase for Reggie Bennett, one of the veterans of women’s pro wrestling. She was part of the abomination (admittedly an amusing one) that was Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and, despite being 37 years old, spent the early part of this year out East, in Aja Kong’s ARSION group, and did very well from what I saw. Bennett started off as a body-builder and has also had a minor movie career – you can see her in Stallone’s arm-wrestling film, ‘Over the Top’, and ‘Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone’. Elsewhere, Madusa Miceli demolishes her opponent with disturbing efficiency (yet again, I suspect a result of Japan-based seasoning), and the Lady X/Bambi title fight is also a pretty good contest. The work-rate on view there is impressive, with both women clearly giving their all, and the result is in doubt right up until the end.

Wacky World is different in that the matches have a vague theme i.e. they’re more or less off-the-wall. For “less”, read a wrestler casually smashing a cream pie into a commentator’s face on the way to the ring; for “more”, try a tag-match, the Glamor Girls versus ‘The Beast’ and Reggie Bennett, over possession of a large toy rabbit called Harvey. That one is as stupid as it sounds – it’s the sort of thing GLOW would do – but actually works because it’s pitched perfectly, balanced between deadly serious and very tongue-in-cheek. However, I should point out that the ‘Glamor Girls’ are neither glamorous nor girls – I suppose calling themselves the Bloated Post-Menopausals wouldn’t prove as catchy. Most of the other battles are merely slightly quirky, though the Desire Petersen/Lady X fight is robust almost to troublesome levels, with Petersen flying into the audience and off the top rope. The tape also lets you see commentator Jim Cornette – and he looks disturbingly like Jeffrey Combs…

Super Challenge starts brightly, with Malia Hosaka + Bambi brawling against the Nasty Girls – like all the tapes, it’s an ‘E’ certificate, though I’m not quite sure this is what the rating was intended for! Malia Hosaka is also in the other top bout, against Madusa Miceli: a nice contrast, Japanese-born against Japanese-experienced. After, oh, some nine hours or so, I’m beginning to get the hang of calling these, and in most of the bouts you can kinda tell who’s likely to win: extraneous interference aside, good tends to triumph over evil more often than not. And it’s not until the title bout between long-time LPWA champion, Australian Susan Sexton, and The Beast – 60 matches in all – that we get the first submission.

Once you see the likes of Toyota and Kansai in action, it may be hard to go back, and for the hardened fan, American women’s wrestling could seem more a curio than anything else. However, such comparisons are probably unfair, while the Japanese brand remains such an underground cult. For the novice, these tapes are an entertaining appetiser, especially for those unwilling to handle incomprehensible Japanese footage. Super Ladies’ Showdown is the best, and makes a good starting point for anyone interested in the spectacle.

Others available include:
Double Trouble!
Grudge Matches!
Wild Women
Super Ladies Showdown 3
All titles £13.99.
Credit card telesales: 01480 455125
or by cheque, payable to Quantum Leap, to:
Quantum Leap,
7 Ermine Street,
Cambs PE18 7EX

Bambi vs. Godzilla

Generally, I consider the Equal Opportunities Commission a bunch of busybodies who’ve made careers out of political correctness. However, a tenet of TC philosophy is that consenting women should be free to beat the crap out of each other, so even I cheered when Jane Couch took British boxing authorities to the EOC, and thence to the cleaners, for their refusal to grant her a licence.

When I heard her first fight was in Streatham, five minutes up the line from TCHQ, it created a fine “research opportunity”: watch the inaugural sanctioned women’s pro-boxing bout in Britain, and get material for this issue too. I bought a ticket (at £30, rather more than the wrestling) and went to see Couch take on a German boxer, Simone Lukic. Couch, a.k.a. the ‘Fleetwood Assassin’ – not the best handle in boxing history – is an ex-confectionery packer with a colourful history involving juvenile delinquency, and looking at her reminded me of the quote often attributed to Wellington: “I don’t know about the enemy, but they certainly put the fear of God in me”. I’d certainly want a lot of money to tangle with her. This was Beauty and the Beast: Couch resembled Jennifer Saunders with dreadlocks, while Lukic, just 18, was tall and willowy, giving the impression a stiff breeze might cause her trouble. Credit to Couch, though, for entering the ring to Sid Vicious’s version of My Way – even if Smack My Bitch Up might have been more appropriate.

Because from the start, it was clear even to me that the sole question was when Couch would win, not if. Her punches had far more vigour, and she just kept advancing, crouched in a toad-like fashion. Lukic, not to be found anywhere in the world rankings, gamely tried to use her height, and jab to keep Couch off, but it was like watching a pink, fluffy thing being stalked by a dark, spiky thing. At 1:04 in round two, Couch finally landed a proper punch. The referee stopped the fight immediately – possibly too rapidly, though Lukic did receive attention in her corner for some time.

Execution witnessed, the press duly departed – and so did Couch, having earned £1,400 at a much better rate than in her rock-packing days. Longer, albeit less interesting, all-male fights followed. Going by this rout, perhaps Couch’s nickname is appropriate after all. But it was such a mismatch, who can tell for sure? Maybe next time, she’ll fight an opponent who can match her undeniable skills, and then we’ll be better able to tell

One Night in Sapporo

Or: “Twenty-six minutes and forty-five seconds of hell”…

Watching Japanese women’s wrestling bouts is certainly enjoyable enough in itself, but to appreciate the true beauty of them, you need also to take on board the bigger picture. For this is not just impromptu brawling: no match stands in isolation, they link with others across time and space in a network of feuds, revenge and drama which would shame many soap operas and in some ways, resembles one directed by Akira Kurosawa. A greater understanding of this hyperviolent jigsaw puzzle can be gained by taking a single bout and trying to unravel some of the threads connected to it. In this case, we’ll take the battle for the WWWA Tag Team Title, in Sapporo on June 18th, 1997.

The fight was a rematch: three weeks previously, in Chiba, Tomoko Watanabe and Kumiko Maekawa had retained the title by beating Las Cachorras Orientals, the duo of Mima Shimoda and Etsuko Mita, after Shimoda was disqualified for bringing a foreign object into the ring. Now, this was a contentious decision, in that previously, such restrictions had been largely ignored. Indeed, extraneous objects are often part of wrestlers’ personas: Aja Kong has her can, Bull Nakano her nunchakus, etc. Admittedly, Shimoda brought in one of the steel guard rails which encircle the ring – not so much a foreign object as a totally alien one.


Wrestling has a language all its own –here are a few commonly heard terms:

  • Blade v. to cut, with the intention of provoking juice. Usually done surreptitiously, by a ringside attendant, under the guise of ‘assistance’.
  • Face n. hero, someone regarded as a good person
  • Heel n. villain, a wrestler for whom rules are an unnecessary inconvenience
  • Juice 1. n. blood. 2. v. to bleed. May be either legit or produced by blading.
  • Legit adj. real, true, honest, natural.
  • Pop v. to make noise, usually by the crowd.
  • Psych n. the backdrop to a fight: the intensity of the combatants and their interaction. Bruce Lee’s fights always had good psych.
  • Sell v. to react to moves, in order to show their effect

The second major angle on this fight was Las Cachorras Orientals conversion to heeldom. Their first outing as bad girls had been the previous night in the same arena, when they took on, and destroyed, Manami Toyota and Toshiyo Yamada. Despite being perhaps the federation’s biggest star, Toyota juiced heavily, thanks to Shimoda wielding a pair of scissors on her scalp, and Las Cachorras also became enthusiastic users of chairs – and not from a relaxing, seat-based point of view. [a demonstration by Las Cachorras of the seat’s potential as an offensive weapon might change the minds of anyone who still thinks wrestling is “fake”. Football hooligans have a lot to learn.] Such extreme behaviour was, no doubt, necessary to get them over as heels, but woe betide their poor opponents – and Las Cachorras didn’t even have any particular reason to hate Toyota and Yamada. With Watanabe and Maekawa, because of what had already happened in Chiba, it would be deeply personal.

The scene was thus set for a spectacularly memorable (from the audience’s view) and painfully messy (from the participants’) event, at the Sapporo Nakajima Sports Centre, before an audience estimated at 3,700 – notably more than the previous night. There were several bouts as warm-up, including a horrible mismatch: Kyoko Inoue and Aja Kong, combined weight: 432 pounds, against Rie Tamada and Yumi Fukawa, combined weight: 255. It didn’t last long. The crowd also saw a severely taped- and gauzed-up Toyota return to the ring, only to juice some more. Then, it was time for the gladiators to enter.

At thirteen stone, Tomoko Watanabe is the Samo Hung of women’s wrestling; solidly built, yet her speed and agility belies her size. In contrast, Kumiko Maekawa is a lean, mean, fighting machine with a crew cut, and the lightest of the four fighters. Compared to these two, Las Cachorras are über-babes: Etsuko Mita is one of the tallest in the business, 5’8″ being well above average height; Mima Shimoda is the prettiest of the lot, but her smile conceals a streak of vindictiveness, now bursting into full bloom.

The bell rings, and Maekawa faces off against Shimoda, kicking away at each other: this is perhaps Maekawa’s area of greatest strength, so Shimoda brings in Mita. She pile-drives Maekawa instead, and has the better of the earlier exchanges, until Watanabe in turn comes in to help her partner. Mita takes badly to this, and hits Watanabe with the first chair of the bout. Time for everyone to meander through the auditorium -­ plenty seat-shaped ammo there – and by the time they return, Watanabe is juicing, and miffed. She tries to bring a chair of her own into the ring; when the referee blocks this, Shimoda kindly gives Watanabe hers – yes, predictably, across the head. Maekawa’s peroxide hair is already looking closer to strawberry blonde as the blood seeps through. Mita attempts to deliver  seat-flavoured justice to Watanabe; she ducks, and Mita biffs her partner instead. A second attempt is more successful, Mita hitting the target as Watanabe prepares to leap off the top rope. However, Watanabe has the last laugh, pinning Shimoda in just over nine minutes.

Phase II sees Maekawa largely on the receiving end. First, Shimoda holds her, allowing Mita free access to her head – open that scalp wound! The bottom rope is slowly loosening, and eventually lies on the ground. Shimoda unties the turnbuckle padding in one corner and tries that as a weapon: brief tests conclusively prove it’s less effective than, oh, kicking Maekawa repeatedly in the head. Maekawa, in the de-padded corner, slumps to the canvas. Given the lack of a bottom rope, this is a bad move: she topples gracefully back, out of the ring, head first onto the floor.

The mats, usually placed round the ring to cushion impacts, are missing for some reason. Maekawa’s skull thus meets solid, bare floor, and she is not happy. Shimoda somersaults off the top rope, down ten feet onto both her opponents – neither look happy – then joins her partner, who is piling chairs up in the middle of the ring, perhaps hoping to save time by dismantling the arena while the fight is still going on. Naturally, this also provides a large pile of scrap to which Maekawa’s back is introduced, and for good measure, a guard rail is thrown on top of her. A hugely pissed-off Maekawa gets on top of Shimoda, and starts raining blows down on her head – referee Bob Yazawa can’t get her to stop, so has to disqualify her and award the fall to Shimoda, who becomes the third member of the match to become an involuntary blood donor, while Maekawa attacks the ref in a frenzy. It took nine minutes, fourteen seconds for the equaliser, setting things up perfectly for the final session.

Maekawa is still furious, and Shimoda is selling her ‘concussion’ big-time, looking as stunned as a Norwegian Blue. Mita saves her with chair-fu, then introduces Maekawa to the guard rails again, before taking her off into the darkness. A rapidly recovering Shimoda piledrives Watanabe into a table, and Mita and Maekawa reappear, brawling on the front row of the balcony while Shimoda gouges Watanabe with scissors – as if there wasn’t enough blood already. Mita dumps Maekawa off the balcony, and she drops to the concrete below, where Mita then tries to hang her, using the now completely detached bottom rope. Watanabe pins Shimoda but the ref is dealing with the Maekawa/ Mita war, and by the time he returns, Shimoda is free – a chair announces Mita’s return, and prevents any immediate re-occurrence. By now, the crowd are popping like mad for each near-fall, regardless of who’s on top: in the end, it’s Mita who hits a Death Valley Bomb on Maekawa for the decider, to give Las Cachorras the title, though Watanabe still wanted to fight on.

In the post-match interviews, Shimoda looked like a poster child for the local women’s refuge – “Just Say No to Domestic Violence” – even if, beneath the caked blood and the bruises, you could still sense a wolfish delight in the carnage and the adrenalin buzz. Mita, on the other hand, was almost unscathed, like the accident victim who miraculously walks free when all around her are maimed. Her day for bloodshed would come. Notably, there were no post-match interviews with Maekawa and Watanabe. Just shots of the ambulance taking them away.

This was one fight on one night; a title bout, sure, yet rated by Mike Lorefice, an authority on such matters, as only worth four stars out of five. Nor was it even especially raw or bloody: in particular, three months later, Las Cachorras would appear in a cage match – a bout where the ring is surrounded by a twelve-foot high steel fence, and victory goes to whichever team escapes first – which would make tonight’s encounter look like a garden party.

However, it isn’t just thrilling and engrossing on a visceral level. Although the agility and skill on view can certainly not be denied, the sheer complexity, not just of the mayhem, but the set-up which surrounds it, also deserves much respect. This background effort is not generally apparent to a casual viewer: the more I watch, the more I am able to delight in the hidden labour which goes into planning, scheduling and promoting the best bouts.

But if watching the fight proves one thing, it’s probably this: anyone who denies that violence can possess a terrible beauty, has clearly not met Mima Shimoda and Etsuko Mita…

[2021 update: Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can now see the match]

YouTube video

True Brit

I have fond childhood memories of happy Saturday afternoons spent in a best of three falls contest versus our draught excluder (no mean opponent – it’s tricky to apply arm holds on a long cloth sausage stuffed with kapok). These enthusiastic, albeit somewhat one-sided, battles were inspired by a ferocious devotion to ITV’s coverage of wrestling, and even now, names like Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Kent Walton will provoke misty-eyed nostalgia in a large percentage of my age group. Wrestling vanished from our screens in the eighties, a victim of Greg Dyke’s attempt to move ITV upmarket – yeah, I know it sounds  implausible in the light of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’ – yet still survives in suburban halls, between Xmas pantomimes and T’Pau concerts. And I’ve become something of a devotee over the past year, even if there’s little chance of seeing anyone even faintly resembling Takako Inoue.

I initially ventured out with trepidation. Some landmarks on the map of childhood memories have stood the test of time (The New Avengers and Kate Bush); others are best consigned to redevelopment (Blake’s 7). Into which camp would wrestling fall? I had little to lose – even the most expensive seat was just £6.50, not bad going for an evening’s live entertainment. And on balance, I was pleasantly surprised. Though not as exciting, excessive, or indeed, cute as the works of JWP and Arsion, I had a fine time, purely from a trashy entertainment perspective.

Crowd numbers are increasing, but a couple of hundred would be typical; almost entirely white working-class, but from kids and teenagers (supporting the villains, with a firm grasp of post-modernism) right up to OAPs. The real hardcore fans sit ringside, and it’s worth joining them. Their exuberant enthusiasm is infectious, occasionally a little too much so – I’ve seen one incensed spectator strip his shirt off and suggest, shall we say, a little amateur bout. However, the eagle-eyed bouncers are always ready to dissuade such individuals, gently but firmly.

In the foyer beforehand, you can buy a selection of ephemera: I just stick to the program, though its worth is questionable – the bouts listed often fail to materialise for one reason or another. However, inside are various bits of news which tend to confirm the current status of wrestling in Britain. Learning that one wrestler suffered a serious knee injury working on a building site proves there are no fortunes being made here.

The most striking thing is how small the ring seems. Maybe it’s a mini-version, or memory and the angles of TV were playing tricks on me, but it hardly looks big enough for two people to sit in, never mind pull the sort of stunts performed by Akira Hokuto. For the opening bouts this is perhaps not a problem, as the wrestlers concerned are often of the sort you might politely describe as “highly experienced”. Or put another way, geriatric. I remember the likes of Skull Murphy and Alan Kirby from my childhood (Kirby was the deaf-mute), and so nowadays their combined ages must be near 100. The result is perhaps like watching two uncles struggle drunkenly at a wedding, or an OAP getting mugged, and unsurprisingly relies more on psychology than stunning action. But equally, these veterans know how to work an audience, and this kind of bout is a nice blast of nostalgia to ease you gently back into things.

On the other hand, people like Jody Flash and James Mason (insert obvious cinematic joke) are notably faster and more athletic, with obvious skills which are only a little short of what I’ve seen on tape. Some of the impacts made the ring shudder, and when sound, vision and position work together, the result is impressive and highly convincing.

However, singles bouts seem a little one-dimensional; what generally works the best, in terms of atmosphere and audience reaction, are tag bouts: the two in the ring wrestle, while the other two act as impromptu cheerleaders, whipping up the audience with practiced ease. In this classic, Manichean struggle, the referee stoically argues with one or other face, while his partner is illegally creamed by the bad guys, to the loud disapproval of the crowd. It’s what I remembered it being all about; pantomime, neo-slapstick and larger-than-life characters, a million miles away from Megumi Kudo crashing face-first into barbed wire, but none the less entertaining for it.

With regard to the female variety, it’s less common than I’d like: as mentioned elsewhere, the GLC had a long-standing ban on such bouts, and the women wrestlers largely avoided this area. They do appear occasionally and the refreshing thing is, unlike the tawdry sideshow of the WWF where contests have been decided by the first to lose their evening gown, these bouts are taken just as seriously as the men’s, by promoters and fans. They also provide no less in the way of skill and entertainment – Miss Syria is a personal favourite, in looks and attitude resembling a dark-haired version of Callisto, albeit with a strong Northern accent. I fondly remember one bout, where her opponent was being carried off ‘injured’, and Syria grabbed the mike and said, “I’m really sorry…for kicking your arse!” You just gotta love a good bad girl.

In the middle of the show, there’s a fifteen-minute interval, which seems largely a chance to buy more souvenirs and tickets for the raffle in the second half – some of the prizes in which appear to whatever has been unsold (no opportunity for promotion left unused!), or alternatively, tickets to the following month’s show… Then it’s back to the action once again, culminating in the headline event – perhaps a title fight, grudge match, or gimmick bout, such as an ‘Over the Top Rumble Match’. This starts with two wrestlers in the ring, and another turns up every couple of minutes; the only means of elimination is being put over the top rope. Now, I said the ring seemed small even when there were only two combatants present: with ten wrestlers in there, it is more like a Central Line train at rush-hour; you could almost hear the “Ouch! Mind my foot!”, “Sorry, is that your elbow”, and “Excuse me…EXCUSE ME!“. The MC acts as a commentator, trying to whip the crowd up, with variable results, depending on whether there are any truly convincing heroes in the ring.

Inevitably, victory in the final bout is never unanimous; the loser will claim a rematch because of alleged cheating, interference or whatever. This is done largely as a cliffhanger, to set things up down the line, and build anticipation. It does feel somewhat optimistic to think that the crowd will manage to sustain their interest for a couple of months until the fight gets arranged, but it does at least show an appreciation of the elements required to make a good contest. It’s just that, as in most other areas, the execution is a little shabbier than the Japanese or even the American version. Yet there’s still something quintessentially attractive about the ordinariness of it all.

The appeal is perhaps truly explicable only if you  stand on a rainswept Division 3 terrace, laugh at Carry On films, own a Jaguar console, or drive a Skoda, and do so out of choice. You know a more polished commodity is available; you just don’t care. So it is with British pro-wrestling. There’s a huge gulf compared to its overseas cousins, or even the glory days, yet die-hard fans go to Croydon every month. And long may we continue to do so. Now, where did I put that draught excluder?

Ayane’s High Kick

Central Park Media,
NTSC Import, approx £15.

From a British perspective, it’s almost impossible to grasp the penetration of wrestling into Japanese popular culture: there are two weekly magazines devoted to the topic, the leading stars are treated with a reverence that would shock those who sneer at the “sport”, and there are nods to it in all manner of fields. In anime, for example, it’s a matter of record that the Dirty Pair had both their names and their costumes based on those of wrestling tag-team the Beauty Pair, while their organization, the WWWA, is also the name of a federation. Once you start looking, you begin to see this kind of stuff cropping up all over the place.

‘Ayane’s High Kick’ is, however, more obvious than most. Though its central theme is cliché #4 – “schoolgirl heroine overcomes obstacles to achieve her dream” – the dream in question is to become a pro wrestler, and fight Manami Toyota. The obstacles too are a little unusual, since they include a manager who insists she’s only good enough for kick-boxing. While there is nothing really new in the execution, it’s notable for the in-jokes, which will delight any fan, and completely baffle everyone else.

Manami Toyota vs.  manga Manami — from a comic-book autobiography

For example, in one fight Ayane’s opponent antagonises her by disparagingly referring to her idol Toyota as a circus acrobat, which if you’re unfamiliar with Toyota’s high-flying style, will simply not be funny. This kind of thing runs through the two episodes here: there are quickfire nods to the likes of Yumiko Hotta, Aja Kong, and the various federations, as well as a cameo appearance by Toyota herself. And there are probably a bunch more that even I missed.

These help to diffuse the tedium, caused by the fact that… well, there’s not much else here of note. Neither the characters not the plotline are especially memorable, though you do get a certain feeling for the tough training that the fighters go through. It’s giving little away to say that Ayane ends up with a 2-0 record, as you never feel she’s in serious danger of losing – ­the animators could have done with some lessons from the WWWA in the art of making fights look realistic. Still, I’d be inclined to watch future episodes, largely for the pleasure to be had in spotting the references to wrestling. Hence, it deserves a rating of C+ for wrestling fans, D- for anyone else.

[Here seems a good place to thank some people for their help with this section: Brian Bower, for introducing me to the delights of such things and sparking my enthusiasm with his, Hideyuki Shimura and Jeff Lynch for tapes, the residents of the women’s wrestling mailing list, Miko for pics, Kim Lyon at Quantum Leap, Andrew Walmsley for beers and chat, and housemates Steve+Abigail for enduring barbed-wire deathmatches above and beyond the call of duty.]

Fighting Fit

Born: 7/11/69
Height: 5’4″ Weight: 139 lbs.
A viable contender for #1 babe in professional wrestling, and a leading light in the AJW federation. Possibly also the best combination of beauty and skill currently working.

Let’s clear up one preconception right away: this brand of female sport has absolutely nothing to do with mud, jelly, custard or any other semi-liquid substance.  It’s even light-years removed from the things you may remember seeing on World of Sport, and GLOW is but the finger-paintings of small children in comparison. This is the nearest thing you’ll get to gladiatorial combat in the 1990’s.

But you might say, isn’t it all staged? And the  obvious reply is, don’t be stupid. Of course it is.

However, let’s distinguish between “staged” and “fake”. Once you see Dynamite Kanzai wrestle, her blood streaming out in a way Peter Jackson would reject as excessively gory, or watched Yumiko Hotta kick her opponent repeatedly in the head, then you’ll know the difference. If you still have doubts, in April, rookie Emiko Kado died as a result of brain injuries incurred in the ring – and is not the first to die for her art. As “fakes” go, this would seem to be pretty convincing, if you ask me.

Born: 22/10/69
Height: 5’1″ Weight: 121 lbs.
Cuty was the first Japanese lady wrestler I ever saw, part of the series ‘263 Useful Ideas From Japan’. Recently retired, she also starred in ‘Cuty Suzuki’s Ringside Angels’ for the Sega Game Gear

Sure, they know beforehand who’s going to win, but that’s true for every Jackie Chan fight, and nobody whinges about that. It’s missing the point, like calling ‘Macbeth’ a whodunnit. To fans, the result is less important than the route by which they reach the end, though the best wrestlers will tend to ‘win’, simply because they are who the crowd wants to see. ‘Exhibition wrestling’ is probably the most accurate term, and certainly, you can’t deny the skill necessary to pull off moves when the margin for error, without seriously hurting your opponent or yourself, is so small. It’s as much spontaneous ballet as martial arts, though Jackie has the major advantage that he gets second takes, instead of having to ad-lib a continuation.

Queen of the Pain Barrier Megumi Kudo, now retired, looked like an archetypal Japanese lady, but gave more blood than most transfusion services. Regular wrestling wasn’t tough enough: she upped the ante by, for example, replacing the ropes with barbed wire. Her retirement match combined a load of these enhancements into the wrestling equivalent of a pizza with everything on. It was billed, in typically understated style, as a “No rope, 200 Volt, double hell, double barbed-wire barricade, double landmine, glass crush, electrical barbed-wire death match”. She ended up in hospital with concussion and 3rd-degree burns; more memorable than being given a gold watch, I suppose.

Born: 2/3/71
Height: 5’6″ Weight: 150 lbs. 
Her trademark move is the moonsault, a backflip off the top corner turnbuckle, landing across her opponent. Toyota’s tenacity is the stuff of legend, even against far larger opponents.

Kudo was a superstar, and the top women often make as much money, if not more, outside the ring through products ranging from CDs to “Lifestyle videos” which, for example, portray the wrestlers on holiday. However, following the collapse in the Japanese economy, most leisure pursuits have suffered, and wrestling is certainly no exception: TV coverage has become limited, and shows that previously played to five-figure crowds now struggle to reach a fraction of that. As a result, the federations which run promotions have been springing up, going bankrupt and reforming at a whirlwind pace. AJW,  for many years the #1, have recently endured financial trouble; they are still perhaps the strongest around, but there are also plenty of up-and-coming groups including Neo Ladies and Arsion, both of which are headed by veterans, Kyoko Inoue and Aja Kong respectively.

Kong’s name is self-descriptive: when she hits opponents off the top rope, they tend to stay hit. She represents the “blunt instrument” school of wrestlers, who concentrate on strength. This works, however, because unlike men’s wrestling, there is a huge variety of styles and forms on show – far more appealing than endless contests between steroid-bloated pretty-boys – plus the better participants have an amazing  spectrum of skills, with timing and agility still required. The contrast of speed and power usually makes for a good contest; even though there are weight divisions, they are so broad as to be ineffective. But I personally feel this poses interesting questions: how do you deal with someone a hundredweight heavier than you?

Born: 22/5/76
Height: 5’0″ Weight: 123 lbs.
One of the best of the new generation, it’s on people like her that the future depends; there’s no doubting her beauty, skill and, above all, her infectious enthusiasm for the sport

There is no strict correlation between beauty and morality; at her peak, in the early 90’s, Akira Hokuto sometimes resembled a cheerleader, but it was a distinctly psychotic one, with a nasty grudge. She gave the disturbing impression that she genuinely enjoyed inflicting pain on her opponent, even when it involved a blatant disregard for her own personal safety – she had her neck broken in one bout, thanks to a miscued pile-driver. There are plenty of others whose looks belie their attitudes, though in the fluid world of Japanese wrestling, good becomes bad with baffling frequency, probably linked to the continual flux of groups, federations and organizations mentioned above. Alliances form and dissolve with the phases of the moon, before, after or even during fights. A laid-back approach to viewing is essential, together with a touching optimism that whatever happens would make sense, if only you knew Japanese.

Born 1/10/67
Height:  5’6″ Weight: 165 lbs.
Possesses a lethal right foot, used to vicious effect on  opponents. A late bloomer, and also a 1998 candidate for the Japanese parliament – gives one new respect for politics.

Despite what some think – in London, all women’s wrestling was banned by the GLC – sex has little to do with it. The costumes are utilitarian and, unlike ‘Foxy Boxing’, do not “fall off”. While undeniably nice, beauty is no prerequisite for employment; physical ability and the willingness to go several extra yards in the name of entertainment clearly are far more important. Some no doubt will claim exploitation, or that it’s demeaning to women; I defy anyone to watch without acquiring deep respect for the wrestlers. It’s notable that a significant percentage of the audience is schoolgirls, and there’s a case for them being better role-models than, oh, say certain Spice-shaped persons. But regardless, it’s irrelevant, since anyone seeking  role-models in the entertainment industry is very badly misguided.

Born: 9/2/69
Height: 5’5” Weight: 132 lbs.
A native of Sasebo City, Kaoru made her debut in 1986 vs. Megumi Kudo. The ‘Excalibur’ is her signature move, and it’s rare to see her in a match of below-average quality.

People round the globe are slowly discovering that the popular image of subservient Japanese cute is a shallow myth – any lingering doubts will last about five minutes into your first barbed-wire death match. I think it’s safe to say that Japanese women’s wrestling certainly has the potential to join anime and Hong Kong films as Asian imports into Western popular culture, and indeed, after a spell in the doldrums, American federations are picking up on the distaff side. Characters like Sable and Chyna are increasingly popular, albeit with any actual wrestling usually well in the background, while ‘Celebrity Deathmatch’ proved that women – or claymation versions of Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton at least – and violence do mix. The Japanese model would be ideal for Granada Men & Motors, alongside their LPWA shows, or any other enterprising cable channel [Bravo have apparently screened some]. If they need a presenter, the address is at the front, and my rates are very reasonable…

Until then, it will no doubt continue at a cult level, where the informal trading of tapes and information is a throwback to the heady days of 1980’s genre fandom. Except that when Customs drool wildly over a tape labelled ‘Japanese Hardcore’, this time the laugh’s on them…