Spotlights sweep across a wrestling arena, electronic music blaring, the announcer’s booming voice pumping up an audience of screaming fans. The main event: a no-holds-barred match between Nagayo Chigusa, founder of the GAEA Women’s Professional Wrestling team, and Lioness Asuka. Despite taking a ferocious beating, Chigusa pulls out a crucial win, a victory for her and her team of girls, who all live and train together in a glorified shed in the Japanese countryside, with just enough space for some tightly packed bunk beds and a wrestling ring.
Gaea Girls, the 2000 film from Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams, is one of five documentaries that the two filmmakers made together in Japan. In an excellent pairing from Second Run, it’s finally being released on DVD alongside their 1995 film Shinjuku Boys. Longinotto, who also directed the award-winning Divorce Iranian Style (1998), has earned herself a reputation for making powerful films that explore the lives of women living on the fringes of society, and these two films complement each other beautifully.
In a country where women are still expected to become demure housewives, the GAEA girls have forcefully broken with tradition in a quest to become ‘a somebody’. They will probably never marry or have children (a theme that reoccurs in both films). With little commentary and few interviews, the filmmakers capture life for these women over a period of months, closely following trainee Takeuchi as she prepares for her final test before she can go pro. While the professional matches may be more spectacle than real contest, the training these girls endure is brutal.
Over the course of filming, two girls run away; Takeuchi, who sees the ring as the only place where she can unload her aggression, fails her first test. Despite her pent-up feelings, she’s simply not tough enough, and faces the shame and humiliation of being tormented by Nagayo for her weakness. The masculine Nagayo, with her spiky, bleached blond hair, confesses in one of the few interviews that she loves these girls as if they were her own children. But in one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, it’s Nagayo who mercilessly pounds Takeuchi into the floor after she’s given a second chance to take the test.
While the film’s classic cinéma vérité style subtly probes beneath the surface of its characters, the film suffers slightly from a lack of context. More interviews with the GAEA girls would have drawn the audience even deeper into their lives, and explained some of the difficult choices they made in such a deeply patriarchal society. Despite the fact that it’s a cruder, more dated film, it’s the strength of the interviews in Shinjuku Boys that makes it an even more arresting documentary.
Gaish, Tatsu and Kazuki are three women who have chosen to live their lives as men. Outcasts from mainstream society, they all work as hosts at New Marilyn, a club for women, who enjoy being entertained by the closest thing they can find to an ideal man. Despite their shared profession, all three hosts embody very different types of masculinity. They also inhabit very different romantic relationships - one with another woman, one with a male to female transsexual. Gaish, the trio’s playboy, sleeps with some of his clients, but never takes his clothes off - not wanting to ruin the illusion that he’s a man. It’s a terrific documentary, and it’s only a shame that it’s not longer.
All of the women who appear in the two films defy easy categorisation - masculine, feminine, gay, lesbian or straight. And although Gaea Girls is less nakedly about gender and sexuality than Shinjuku Boys, both films are fascinating in what they reveal about women living lives that are so utterly remote from those of mainstream women, both in Japan and the rest of the world.
Buy Shinjuku Boys / Gaea Girls [DVD]  from Amazon