A review requested by Brian Fowler, with thanks to supporting Alternate Ending as a donor through Patreon.

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It's not at all hard for me to imagine a viewer who, upon learning that there exists a British made-for-television documentary about the practitioners of joshi puroresu - professional wrestling in Japan modeled on, but importantly different from professional wrestling in the U.S. (puroresu), specifically done by women (joshi) - would be very excited to learn more about this sport and its athletes. I admit that I am not one of those viewers. But Gaea Girls, for that is the 2000 entry in the BBC Two series Under the Sun that I have just described, isn't really playing by the sports documentary rulebook, and as a result proves to be much more interesting than its logline suggests.

The particular subject of the film is GAEA Japan, a wrestling promotion founded in 1995 by Nagayo Chigusa, who I am given to understand was one of the most spectacularly popular professional athletes in Japan in the 1980s - the single most popular female wrestler in history, according to an unusually unsober Wikipedia. GAEA was her attempt to put together an all-women wrestling league, and it was successful over its short existence - when it closed its doors in 2005 (meaning that Gaea Girls was put together shortly before the midway point of the promotion's lifespan), it was thriving, and it was mostly to do with Nagayo's desire to move onto the next thing that it ended.

Here's the first great thing about Gaea Girls, and something that points to the type of movie that it is: none of the above is present in the film at all, nor does it matter in the slightest. Perhaps the average BBC Two viewer knows tons more about joshi puroresu and Nagayo than I do, but I rather doubt it; I think it's probably just the case that directors Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams felt that providing us with an under superfluity of exposition was just going to get in the way of their movie. This isn't telling us the story of GAEA Japan, or Nagayo Chigusa's career; it's just watching one specific aspect in the life of a GAEA wrestler, training for her professional debut, with the filmmakers's cameras standing apart a bit, watching but never really inhabiting the same space and getting in the wrestlers' faces. It remains so thoughtfully apart, in fact, that in the rare moments when the fourth wall is broken (early on, when the film introduces trainer/student Satomura Meiko, it's in the form of a "hero shot" type pose against a blank background, with perfect lighting; late in the film, Nagayo is earnestly talking about her plans and hopes, and she's delivering this in a monologue to nobody in the room, staring at a point just a couple of feet to the right of the camera), it feels genuinely jarring, like something important has briefly flickered out of the film.

Gaea Girls tells it story of the GAEA training process primarily through the journey of one young woman, Takeuchi Saika; while it announces itself as primarily focused on four people (Takeuchi, Satomura, Nagayo, and Sugiyama Yuka, co-owner of GAEA Japan), she very quickly is established as our protagonist, with Nagayo getting a healthy share of the remaining attention simply because she's such a big personality. The film is a bit about the raw mechanics of wrestling, and the filmmakers spend plenty of time recording matches; these are shockingly brutal affairs to someone such as myself, whose meager functional knowledge of professional wrestling is limited to the gaudy theatrics of U.S. wrestling promotions. Not merely the muscular force on display, but what I'm almost tempted to call the crudeness of it, the lack of anything playful or performative in favor of fast and furious explosions of bodies launched against bodies like weapons. One-on-one athletic competitions, like wrestling or boxing, have always felt to me like the most quintessentially cinematic, since the camera is so much better at capturing the interactions of two people than great swaths of humans scattered across large fields; Gaea Girls certainly gets at some of that in its scenes of matches, making the impact of hits and kicks and feel hard and violent, as the indifferent, all-observing perspective of the camera strips away the balletic qualities of the movements or the romance of human athleticism. It's tough.

But I was saying: the film is a bit about this, and considerably less than I imagined it would be. What it's mostly about, and very much to its benefit, is what I suppose I might call the "culture" inside the GAEA training facility. Gaea Girls is never so blunt as to ask its questions directly, but it certainly does have questions, foremost being to wonder what causes a perfectly ordinary young woman like Takeuchi to commit herself to such a brutal, raw life. And it has, less a question than a curiosity about the curious emotional tensions within the training life. Nagayo, in her mid 30s at the time the film was shot, at one point suggests that she feels a motherly attachment to all the young women working so hard to thrive in her program and make as GAEA stars. And at the time she says it, this seems absolutely reasonably and sincere. But, all throughout the movie, we see her verbally lacerating those same trainees with a hurricane-force rage of personality, which could have any number of explanations or justifications, but this isn't the kind of project that's going in for that. Again, the point here is just to stand by and observe and consider.

What emerges from this considering is at some point up to the individual viewer, which is part of the reason to use this carefully detached documentary style. But I think what cannot be missed is that Gaea Girls ends up being far more captivated by the interpersonal interactions - I do not say "conflicts" - that it captures through its unblinking lens. Wrestling is ultimately almost more of a pretext for the film than the subject; the subject is the harsh life of a sports star (and while the film never comes out and says that joshi puroresu is huge business, it's clear enough from the things we pick up on the edges of conversation that this is real, proper stardom at a major, visible level, and not just a curious little subculture that nobody knows about), and even more than that, how the athlete is herself hardened in the hope of coping with that. And so we get the things you get in sports documentaries: scene upon scene of training and stretching and bodies in motion, human figures turned into kinetic shapes of remarkable flexibility and control (one unexpected repeating visual motif is a very particular kind of pelvic stretch, low to the ground, that makes the wrestler in question look sort of fluid and swanlike; it's not the most overtly impressive move we ever see these athletes perform, and yet it also is the single thing that triggered the most pronounced "well, that's something I could never do" response I had the whole time); scenes of actual wrestling. But we also get things you see in direct cinema: people in rooms reacting to the world in real time, trying to figure out what choices to make. And, too, people scraping against each other, testing each other's limits.

It's in these human moments that Gaea Girls is at its best. The single moment that struck me the most out of the whole film comes late, when Takeuchi gets her first big professional bout, and the filmmakers spend almost much time watching her mother in the audience, wearing a powerfully ambivalent look of pride and worry, even mixed with perhaps something like disgust or disdain for the violence and brutality being meted out onto her daughter. That's the movie, right there: not wrestling, not athletic prowess, but conflicted emotions and an admiration mixed with terror at the fearsome commitment of the athletes.