Thanks to Mike Fitzgerald reviewing the LPWA Super Ladies Showdown, featuring the crowning of the first (and last) LPWA Japanese Champion, it prompted me to think of another time I saw and was flabbergasted by something including female Japanese wrestlers. About twenty years ago, while at uni, I flicked over to BBC2 late one evening and saw Gaea Girls, a documentary produced by two British producers based in Japan. One word to describe it for me: brutal. So, here’s a review of the doc.

Obvious buyer beware in case it’s not your thing, but this is subtitled. Stars of the show are Chigusa Nagayo, Meiko Satomura, who seem to be the ladies of the valley of Death Valley Drivers. While they kick arse in the ring, trainee Saika Takeuchi gently rides an exercise bike in the training facility and seems shy, aspirational and the furthest thing from being a wrestler. She clumsily takes another trainee down before Chigusa, formerly a pin-up idol but now a leather-wearing, tough, tattooed spinster, offers stern instruction. Saika is aware that as a person she doesn’t stand out, but thinks the wrestling ring will be the vehicle to bring out her inner self.

The trainees seem to have a good rapport, even joking between themselves as someone stirred the soup with a stirrer that’s already been inside a goldfish bowl. I’ve heard Stu Hart did worse! A new trainee is inducted into the school, which with bunks and communal housing feels like the world’s scariest sorority house, with Chigusa the dean and someone they stand and await the arrival of. Also in attendance is the female president Sugiyama Yuka, an attractive and seemingly kind woman, who acknowledges that the trainee has been there before and left because she found it hard. She endorses a strict but fair approach, with the trainee even apologising to everyone for having wasted everyone’s time. Chigusa smilingly says that if she wastes their time again they’ll kill her, and it’s not clear whether that’s a joke or not.

Chigusa attends a radio interview, performed in kayfabe, talking about her feud with former partner Lioness Aska and their upcoming match, in which if she loses she will forsake her very name and become Zero (which I think she did in WCW a few years prior). Then we see her stiffly walk to the ring for the said match. Aska brings the weapons to the ring with her and now resembles Masa Chono with her long leather coat. Their match goes hardcore inside and outside the ring. It’s two old partners who know each other intimately updating their style to include the then-modern hardcore sensibilities. Chigusa’s bloody forehead runs backwards into her blonde hair like a red Mohawk. She uses fire breath and a DVD to win and maintain her identity. Despite the intensity of the match, she makes amends with Aska by helping her up and putting her over on the mic.

The trainees jog and exercise to the point of exhaustion, the new girl looking ready to puke at any moment. Saika is getting it, though. Meiko leads the instruction further. Dropkick training looks hilarious, with people standing as training dummies with big yellow pads on their backs like walking cheese. A little mercy is shown on the obviously struggling new girl – she’s only got 200 squats to go(!).

As good as she’s doing, Saika isn’t spared any mercy, with some stiff stomps from Meiko in a sparring match and a dropkick that looks like the feet go through her chest. She’s folded over in a Boston crab while new girl looks like “Why the fuck did I come back?”. Saika tries a volley of dropkicks, which look decent enough, but Meiko famously doesn’t sell them, before topping her last one with another that should’ve knocked some teeth out. It’s infamous and it’s kayfabe while giving away some tricks of the trade, but looks like a total liberty for the cameras to get over the toughness of the sport. There’s a coincidental reproduction of Louis Theroux and Dewayne Bruce’s drill instructor exchange with Meiko calling out Saika’s softness, before the camera reveals her mouth dripping blood like something out of a horror movie. Meiko says that any other wrestler training with her would’ve killed her… how nice.

Saika actually blames herself rather than anyone else, and Chigusa is happy to add a little bit more blame. She should be ready to fire up. Serves her right. Where did she learn to wrestle? Er, here, your school, Chigusa. Meiko, in a separate interview, says you have to be tough to breed toughness. Cut to her getting her own head bounced off the canvas in a math before firing back up with an uppercut forearm that just sounds painful. You can hear it even over the frenetic shooting of pictures by the photographers at ringside. She avoids one flying legdrop from her opponent, but not the second one. Then some headbutts that sound like drumsticks being banged together. Dragon suplex finishes her off. Meiko is positioned as a Chigusa acolyte while Lioness Aska congratulates her opponent.

Back at school, Saika’s beating continues, but she appears stronger. Chigusa tells her to cut her hair shorter, with an obvious attempt to shape her in her own image. The other girls trim her fringe while the new girl sweeps up the hair. We’re then told in a caption that the new girl ran away that night, no doubt fearing her own long locks would be next. The next day, Saika asks to take her test, a gauntlet of matches against active wrestlers. Chigusa won’t even look her in the eye as she tells the rest to not take it easy on her. She then watches through the bouts with the president, who is the Simon Cowell of the pair at the judging table. Saika cries her way through to the final about with Meiko, which runs to the time limit. Saika’s forearms look limp and light compared to Meiko’s one stiff shot. Chigusa berates her again and tells her she should just give up and go home to her mommy and daddy if she can’t be strong, then out of nowhere slaps her and tells her to stop crying. It’s incredibly scary how she snaps. Saika begs for another chance while another trainee just gives her notice based on what she’s seen.

So, life continues with one less trainee, although not before Chigusa tells the trainee that she’s like a child to her and that she’ll probably never forgive her for her disloyalty. Really disturbing emotional blackmail where Chigusa is basically blaming her for her own sacrifices of not marrying or having children. She leaves while the other girls see her off, holding pets to their chests and crying to themselves. Not long after, new recruit Sato joins the school.

Sato, who has pigtails, seems to have a bit more energy about her than the other trainees. Chigusa tells Sato’s mom that she’s smiling now, but when she leaves she will transform into a disciplinarian. Sato’s mom, a very nice lady, is supportive and understanding. The president tells Sato that she can make her proud by becoming a professional, but also says that she and Chigusa are going to become demons as soon as mom is gone. Only thing to say against Sato is that she seems a bit naive. Her difficult training begins immediately, with a seeming impossibility to complete the squats drill, as if her legs refuse to bend initially.

Over time, she starts showing some improvement, but still finds it hard. Meiko shows her a little bit of sympathy. She watches Saika’s beatings continuing and starts crying, thinking she hadn’t a clue what she’d signed up for. It sounds like she’s talking herself out of it and trying to get out of continuing with the venture, so Chigusa comes in and tells her off, telling her she should be ashamed of herself and if she wants to go home then she can, but she’ll always be one of life’s defeatists. Back to a common theme, she’s told she’s selfish and is slapped on the head with a pile of papers before Chigusa walks off. Sato leaves, basically running to get away as fast her burning legs can manage.

A journalist talks to Saika about her final chance coming soon. Her second test commences. It’s probably even tougher than the first. The final opponent this time is, of course, Chigusa, who no-sells the waning dropkicks and gets a stiff clothesline and slam to try and put her down, not even bothering to take her jacket off. There’s an inherent humiliation in letting her power up through pinfall attempts and a Boston crab before casually stepping away. A clothesline before the time is up busts Saika’s mouth open. It’s not over yet, as Saika cries while getting slapped and berated. Chigusa sadistically smiles while telling her to speak up, telling her that if it was her getting hit she would’ve hit them back twice as hard. Saika faces her peers and begs again to be allowed to debut, saying she promises she’ll last a whole five minutes!

The president gives her decision – she has passed and is now a pro, but not to give up. Saika is gifted with a neon green singlet, reminiscent of the Crush Gals, which she is thankful for.

Chigusa then privately shares that the way she teaches is the way that her father taught her and it hurts her to be that way, acknowledging that she feels like the world’s biggest bitch, but it’s to make them tough. She hopes they shove it back in her face. The revelation is that her father was a soldier in the army and would slap her around to instill discipline. Basically, she’s doing that to show her dad she can do better than he did.

Saika gets her hair cut properly and models the singlet, walking stiffly still after all the training, then debuts at a Gaea show. Her mom watches from the crowd. Meiko will be her opponent. Saika comes out screaming, hitting dropkicks from the start. Meiko cuts her off. Saika keeps on coming with more fire as mom rocks backwards and forwards on her chair in discomfort before clapping her on for a near fall. Ultimately, she taps out to an arm submission, but has her opponent’s respect. She’s not satisfied with herself, though, and wants to win next time. Mom and dad and friends approve, though, with flowers offered to her for doing so well and a photo providing the freeze frame for the end credits.

Melting it down: A thoroughly intense 99 minutes, as Nagayo seems like a psychotic drill sergeant with Satomura as her smiling personal assassin. It’s a great, albeit controversial, story of three people sharing a journey from different perspectives, given extra depth by the addition of the trainees that don’t make it. Not for everyone, but completely engrossing.