One of the most vital skills of a masked performer in pro wrestling is the ability to work around the mask’s biggest handicap; that in creating a sense of mystery, the hood removes the wrestler’s most useful tool. In a predominantly non-verbal medium, it’s the face that a wrestler uses to convey the ecstasy and agony of victory and defeat, that generates the all important pathos of the violent theatre.

The Great Sasuke is one of the most skilled wrestlers, masked or not, in history, and is praised for his ability to communicate and generate emotion through the mask. In never showing his face during Mikiko Sasaki’s documentary, it’s either Masanori Murakawa’s natural showmanship, or his openness despite himself that we see emotions from Sasuke too granular to spot from the cheap seats of the wrestling arena; resignation, disappointment, and through it all, a ceaseless optimism.

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Sasuke is, to a foreign fan of Japanese wrestling at least, one of a trio of seminal masked junior heavyweights that gained cache through the tape trading scene, and saw that grow to a cult international stardom. While a career ending injury meant we never saw to what extent the recently departed Eiji Enzaki’s star would rise as Hayabusa, it’s with Sasuke’s contemporary Jushin Liger that apt and diverse comparisons can be found. Both drew heavily from foreign experience (Liger in the UK, Sasuke in Mexico) to shape their careers. Sasuke owes Liger for his spot in the legendary 1994 Super J Cup, a tournament Sasuke reached the finals of, and in which Sasuke pieced together a series of performances that made him a worldwide star. Both Liger and Sasuke would garner somewhat of a name in the US in the mid 90s, but on opposite sides of the WCW/WWF fence.

Today, both Liger and Sasuke are mainly working opening or undercard matches, working hard behind the scenes and developing young talent. Yet while Liger plays this role in Japan’s leading promotion to crowds of thousands who recognise him as a living legend, Sasuke does so to scattered crowds in the low three digits in the knowledge that his best days are behind him.

Sasaki for the most part chooses not to linger on Sasuke’s past glories, and in interviews, neither does Sasuke himself, leaving that task to talking heads of journalists and fellow wrestlers Jinsei Shinzaki and TAKA Michinoku, who owe their careers to Murakawa. The film instead captures two big attempts for Sasuke to recapture former glory, in his 20th career anniversary match in 2010 and a 2011 bid to revive a political career that saw him become the first masked individual in local government early in the millennium.

Sasuke talks about receiving ‘a message from God’ to first embark on a pro wrestling career, and then to base his career in the small towns of north-eastern Japan. While the innovative ‘lucharesu‘ combining Mexican and Japanese styles drew a cult status to Michinoku Pro, the boutique audience it attracted, away from the busy streets and bright lights of Japan’s economic centres meant for financial struggles. Shinzaki, now president of Michinoku Pro, tells of inheriting the company’s books from Sasuke, showing them to financially minded friends and being told ‘this is a company that’s already gone under’. Sasuke attempts to bring a big crowd for his big match, not just to satisfy his own ego, but as a shot in the arm to his struggling promotion.

Sasuke’s ego is certainly visible, and something he admits to, but he has his selfless motives; a sense of duty to his students and employees, and to his community. When he runs for government in the wake of the Tohoku disaster of 2011, it’s clear to see Sasuke’s love for the community, but also his desire to boost a sense of self-worth as he heads toward middle age and relative obscurity. It’s the latter that the majority, especially older, members of the public see, and the resulting lessons in humility are painful to watch.

Sasaki follows Sasuke in the lead-up to his anniversary match literally heading door to door in town in a bid to sell tickets, often politely being turned away. The night before the show he telephones those on the fence to no avail. When Sasuke campaigns as an independent meanwhile, Sasaki contrasts the campaigners with party backing in huge trucks driving around city streets tannoys blaring, with Sasuke walking around tiny streets with a solar-powered megaphone. Sasuke’s face is covered throughout, but we often see him changing masks from a cooler designed hood for indoors to one for outside; as a performer sees donning a mask as a means to drop into character, Sasuke seems to be girding himself for a new humbling journey every time he steps outdoors.

Sasuke’s failings are inevitable but crushing as Sasaki lingers on empty seats and a long telephone conversation as his camp learns the election results, Sasuke’s name finally coming in at the bottom. Yet harsh as his realities are, we see the hope and joy he brings and is inspired by. While far from selling out, Sasuke’s match with current Pro Wrestling NOAH star Kenou has fans emotionally invested, loud and jumping for joy. In the wake of his campaign loss meanwhile, Sasuke heads to an elementary school deeply affected by the earthquake and tsunami, and easily wins the hearts of children there.

It’s here that the film reaches its conclusion, Sasuke perhaps still struggling on some level with a hunger to recapture past glories, but at the same time so devoted to the communities he creates and exists in that he’s content with working away from the bright lights, allowing his greatness to take another meaning. Sasaki’s documentary is not an expose, not a desire to unmask Sasuke. It is instead a balanced and touching portrait of Murakawa, who like the best of performers, is open and readable even under the hood.

About The Author

Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)