Far from the larger-than-life figures and their cartoonish displays of hyper-masculinity that you may expect from professional wrestling, what Gaea Girls reveals is a far different side to the sport than you might be used to—in more ways than one. A documentary from Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams that premiered at TIFF in 2000, the film revolves around GAEA Japan—a joshi puroresu (Japanese women’s wrestling) promotion—and the life and training process of a group of hopeful teenage girls who aspire to become professional wrestlers for the company. The film’s main figures are Saika Takeuchi—a shy, bubbly and young trainee, striving to pass her tests and make her professional debut—and Chigusa Nagayo, a legend of the business in her mid-30s, and the founder and head trainer of the dojo. The focus on these two figures indicates one of the main themes of the film: idols and role models, and how they may shape the person you become in a big way.
To get the full context of the importance of this theme, it’s also crucial to understand the impact that Chigusa had on Japanese teen culture at that point, and how joshi wrestling, as a medium, represents its idols. Gaea Girls does a great job at contextualizing this for the viewers—even those completely clueless about the reality of wrestling. In showing highlights of one of her matches, the film also foregrounds Chigusa as not just the head trainer and a parental figure to her students, but as a seasoned competitor. As a teen in the mid-to-late-80s, Chigusa was part of the legendary Crush Gals—a wrestling tag team that took Japanese pop culture by storm, much like Hulk Hogan in America. Enthusiastic whilst also violent and rebellious, The Crush Gals represented a brand of wrestling directed specifically at teen girls—a truly foreign concept to the West at that point. Joshi wrestlers are portrayed as true warriors, who engage in bloody affairs, while never sacrificing their unique femininity.
“When you see the wrestlers in the ring, they are so alive, they shine. I want to be like that,” young Saika confesses early in the film. The chance of becoming a pro wrestler gave Saika an opportunity to stand out—while the profession can be a prime outlet for expressing inner adolescent rage and the frustration of growing up, it can also be a means of transcendence. It offers a chance to be role models themselves, to be like her trainer and idol Chigusa—rocking, storm-like specks of light that live, breathe and thrive in the ring, and overcome ordinariness. “In the ring, I can become someone who is noticed,” she remarks.
Despite being defined by dreams of spectacle, the bulk of the film is not spent in the limelight. Instead, we spend most the time in the dojo, a remote and rural area where Takeuchi and other trainees endure the hardships of training. One of the triumphs of the film is precisely this dichotomy—an effective and palpable balancing of the spectacle and the behind-the-scenes, of the overwhelming noise and the quiet remoteness (where the only sounds you hear are the echoes of bodies hitting the ring mat). Longinotto and Williams achieve this without ever feeling heavy-handed, instead letting the images speak for themselves.
The narrative arc of the documentary is built around the big tests that Takeuchi needs to go through to determine if she’s ready to be an official member of the company. These consist of a series of one-on-one matches against more established women, and it is when we see Takeuchi’s first test that the film truly takes a darker turn. Apart from the violence of the older competitors towards the young Takeuchi, when it becomes too much for her to handle, Chigusa also displays horrifying acts of emotional and psychological abuse. She slaps her, yells at her to give up and tells her that she’s useless, as Takeuchi sobs and begs to stay.
Seeing these scenes play out, as raw as they can be, hit you with the harsh reality of joshi wrestling’s training process; but through them, we also begin to understand the mentality behind this notion of “tough love.” Chigusa confesses that these girls are like children to her, though while she feels the responsibility to push them to reach their dreams and be as great as they can be, she also wants to give the audience as strong and believable a show as possible. She is brutal as the head coach, but shows herself extremely proud of what she does—seeing her method as an act of love, for both the girls and wrestling as an art form in its own right. Having witnessed Takeuchi’s will to stay, Chigusa eventually decides to give her a second test, and it’s this faith that lies behind all of her brutal training methods.
The next time we see the young prospect, she’s different: no longer bubbly and naive, but more rugged and adult, with scars visibly on show. Takeuchi appears more determined than ever to fulfil her potential and give everything that she has in this second test. All the abuse and rejection from her idol turned her into a brewing storm, ready to be unleashed—it’s either this, or the burden of crushed dreams.
Her final encounter in the test ends up being against Chigusa herself. By then completely battered, Takeuchi is constantly forced down to the mat, but she keeps getting back up with all her might. It’s absolutely enthralling to watch, serving as a cathartic, nail-biting climax to the film, despite not even being Takeuchi’s big professional debut. No crowds cheering for their favourites, no spotlights and no extravagant fictional storylines behind the matches—it’s as raw and real as it gets here. One may even forget that they’re watching a documentary, since the scene plays out like an emotionally demanding conclusion you may expect from epic fiction: displaying titanic efforts of fortitude and will. Part of the reason this comes off is that the filmmakers share a perfect understanding of what’s inherently captivating about pro wrestling. Their framing of scenes and how they let things play out creates a dynamic between the viscerally real and the staging as a vehicle for storytelling. What we get out of it, as a result, is a thrilling and fascinating story of master vs student, naturally unfolding before our very eyes.
At the end, having been frustrated and tested to the limit by Chigusa, Takeuchi passes and shows herself worthy of debuting as a pro in front of the whole world. Her debut match is treated more as an epilogue, but what truly stays is her post-bout interview. When asked about the wrestler that she admires the most, young Takeuchi, with a haunting and hardened look in her face, answers “Chigusa Nagayo.” This goes to show how normalized this type of upbringing and the traumas linked to it are in this culture. It’s a culture where idols and role models cyclically breed contempt from their admirers with punishing abuse, creating a system—dangerously embraced by those who emerge from it—where every drive to succeed is rooted in fear.
Moments like this is where we realize how poignantly Longinotto and Williams’ contemplative directing has worked. They effortlessly introduce the wider context, and deeply hone in on these women’s burning desires and the forces that drive them—both individually and with respect to the culture they exist in. The film is a testament to the power of cinema: its ability to immerse you in a different reality, and to greatly enhance our understanding of its subject matter (as obscure and foreign to the viewer as it may be). Gaea Girls is a masterful feat of storytelling in documentary filmmaking—a meditation on the cultural significance of our idols, the means to reach their heights, and the irreparable scars that we may suffer along the way.