Guangdong Heroine

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“A heroine has no name.”

This is something of an obscurity. It’s available on YouTube, which is where I saw it, but I was unable to find an IMDb entry for it, or any other information beyond what is present at the source. It’s hard even to tell when it was made, because it’s a period piece, set (I’m going to presume) during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in the 1930’s. We first meet the heroine (Yu) – who is never referred to as anything except “Guangdong Heroine” – as a schoolgirl, when her and a friend are attacked and raped by foreign soldiers. Unable to cope with the shame, her friend throws herself off the cliff, just before Ms. Heroine is rescued by the timely arrival of a group of rebels. She joins them, and rises up through the ranks, eventually taking over when their leader passes away, naming her as successor.

She becomes a leader of the resistance, famed throughout the province to the extent that various copycats take her name, while carrying out attacks on the occupying forces. But she has issues of her own, worrying that she is not feminine enough to attract the co-rebel for whom she has affection, the equally clunkily-named Tiger Four (Wei). The two eventually begin a relationship, but juggling romance and duty proves problematic. Things come to a head when a group of her soldiers rape a Japanese woman they took captive: Heroine has a zero-tolerance policy for such things and the perpetrators are sentenced to death. Which is awkward, since it eventually turns out that Tiger endorsed their actions. Justice therefore demands that he, too, suffer the same penalty. Will romance trump fairness?

It’s a solidly-made item, though rather confusing. Heroine may have a sister who moonlights as a prostitute. She may also have another sister who is the daughter of a Japanese commanding officer. Or the film’s subtitles may simply be using “sister” in its meaning of Communist camaraderie, it’s hard to tell. The movie needs to be much clearer: it is certainly capable of this, such as when Heroine has her future told by a street fortune-teller. None of the vague “You will go on a journey and meet interesting people” nonsense here. He tells her: “The gap between your eyebrows shows death… In no more than half a month, you will be executed,” adding in a not very reassuring way, “Please don’t take offense. This is predetermined.” Chinese street fortune tellers clearly do not mess about.

Overall though, this is not bad, with some surprisingly epic battle scenes (I’m not sure the American Humane Society would agree, because some of the horse-falls look a little tough; there’s another scene early on which is also not going to impress PETA), and Yu has a steely determination about her that’s appealing. On the other hand, I would likely have been more interested in how she rises from violated schoolgirl, to become the heir apparent of a rebel clan, rather than what she does after she gets there.

Dir: Bai De-Zhang and Xu Xun-Xing
Star: Yu Lan, Lau Wei, Bai De-Zhang, Lisa Lu

Women Who Kill

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“Not so basic instincts.”

When I told Chris the title of this one, I swear you could hear her eyes rolling at the mere thought of it. But by the end, even she had to admit to having been won over by its dark charms. Most obviously is the sense of black humour which isn’t just dry, it’s as arid as the Atacama Desert. Morgan (Jungermann) and Jean (Carr) are fascinated by female serial killers, running a podcast on the topic which has acquired its own, unique fanbase. Morgan falls for Simone (Vand), a colleague at the food co-operative where she works. But Jean – who is also Morgan’s ex – can’t help thinking there is something seriously off with Simone.

At first, this seems like petty jealousy. But what exactly is Simone keeping in that lock-box of hers? Could she be a candidate for the podcast, more than Morgan’s new soul-mate? As things progress – a mysterious death at the co-operative, the realization that “Simone” may be just the latest in a series of identities, circling back towards one of their podcast subjects – the crunch eventually comes. Jungermann seems to be stressing the difference between chatting vapidly about which serial killer was the most “stylish”, or interviewing one in captivity (O’Toole provides a deliciously twisted cameo as the incarcerated Lila, voted second-most stylish by the podcast’s listeners – she is not at all impressed by the winner), and having to deal with one in the wild. When there’s someone who might or might not present a direct threat to you and your friends, it’s no longer a vicarious thrill.

This is set almost exclusively in the lesbian community – there are very few speaking male roles. But it’s still enormously accessible, and avoids the frequent pitfall of gay cinema, making its characters human first, rather than defined predominately by their sexuality. Morgan’s insecurities, such as the belief Simone is too attractive possibly to be attracted to her, are universal ones. Her reactions, similarly, make sense in the circumstances. These help keep the film grounded, along with dialogue which is all the better for being delivered almost entirely deadpan by everyone involved. [There’s something of Carrie-Anne Moss about Jungermann, both in her look and delivery of lines]

It is definitely a movie for a certain taste. If you’re not fond of acidic wit, this won’t be your cup of herbal tea, and it does occasionally become too wrapped up in itself; I’m sure aspects flew well over our heads. The script also seems to run out of steam, providing an ending that fizzles out into indie indecisiveness. Mind you, given one of the film’s subtexts is the fear of commitment, perhaps its ending is another reflection of the same thing. There was still easily enough to keep us interested, and it proves that good characters and solid dialogue are not limited by cinematic boundaries of genre or setting. I trust Chris learned not necessarily to judge a movie by its title!

Dir: Ingrid Jungermann
Star: Ingrid Jungermann, Ann Carr, Sheila Vand, Annette O’Toole

Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter

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Barb Wire… In space!”

Actually, if only this had been that, it would likely have been a great deal more entertaining. The most obvious point of comparison is lead Birdsall: as the poster on the right shows, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Pamela Anderson. The setting is also dystopian SF, though even more so than in Barb Wire. This takes place after a decade-long apocalypse, which pitted mankind against the artificial intelligences we had created, they having decided we were more a problem than a solution [coughSkynetcough] What remains of the human race, is now struggling to survive in the blasted landscape which remains.

Among them is Sienna (Birdsall), who hears of a planet which contains weapons that can fry the AI circuits, before they can carry out their nefarious plan to download all of humanity’s consciousness into the Matrix. She puts together a plucky team of stock cliches – the geek (McGrath), the muscle-bound fighter (Crawford, clearly the low-rent Vin Diesel. Seriously, he used to be on the British version of Gladiators, and his character was literally called “Diesel”), the robot with a line of snappy repartee – and flies off in a spaceship to find the bombs which are humanity’s last chance. On the way, they meet up with another robot – this one a pleasure model (Park) – and learn some rather disturbing revelations about Sienna’s own past [coughTyrellCorporationcough].

These revelations do, admittedly, explain her stylistic choices – and, cynics might suggest, her approach to acting. In between a fair amount of futuristic chit-chat of varying interest value, there’s a lot of running around deserts, pretending to fire laser weapons at robotic enemies that, very obviously, aren’t there at all. The physical look of the film isn’t actually too bad; the cinematography has a fairly epic scope to it. The main problem from a visual standpoint, is the CGI has been meshed very badly with the real footage: you never escape the knowledge that the former has been pasted on top of the latter. If your script is going to span the galaxy and feature multiple human vs. robot confrontations, you need to be able to deliver. It has been twenty years since Starship Troopers came out, and its CGI still kicks this film’s ass from here to Klendathu.

While not entirely devoid of pleasures, the ones to be found here are mostly minor. Birdsall does actually have some screen presence, and certainly looks the part, in a Barbarella-esque kind of way. There’s a nice scene at the beginning, where she’s trying to escape in a car which has an auto-pilot, and it refuses to leave until it has gone through its entire checklist of new driver items. That kind of self-effacing humour is something the film needed in greater quantities, and would have helped defray the woeful inadequacy of the technical elements, for wit is cheap. Though on the evidence of this, not as cheap as the visual effects software used here. If that isn’t good enough to let the audience take your film seriously, you probably shouldn’t either.

Dir: Neil Johnson
Star: Tracey Birdsall, Tim McGrath, Daz Crawford, Ashley Park

The Villainess

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“Action cinema levels up in Korea.”

This opens with a blistering seven minutes of action which starts off in first-person perspective, looking like the most deranged video game ever, as the protagonist slices, dices and shoots their way through a building to a confrontation with the final boss. After being slammed head-first into a mirror, the point of view changes and we see the attacker is a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). Finishing her slaughter, she calmly accepts arrest, but the Korean intelligence services recruit her, hoping to channel her skills to their own ends, after a spot of plastic surgery to ensure a fresh start. When training is completed, under Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), she’s given an apartment, unaware that the man next door, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung), is actually her handler. However, he’s not the only person with something to hide. Because Sook-hee is out to leverage her new position, and is still after long-awaited revenge on the man who killed her father.

With a storyline that’s little more than equal parts of Nikita and Kill Bill, deep-fried in a crimson vat, the only way this is going to survive is to be all about the style. Fortunately, it delivers on that aspect by the bucket. I watched that opening sequence three times before I could bring myself to proceed, and other set-pieces are almost as spectacular (and slightly less motion sickness inducing!), such as the sword-fight on speeding motorbikes. Or the final battle on a bus. Or… Yeah, let’s just say, when this is in motion, it’s utterly glorious, demented and bloody beyond belief. The problems are when it isn’t, with a horribly muddled narrative structure which also seems cribbed from Tarantino. So it’s extremely heavy on the flashbacks, and leaps around the heroine’s time-line like an amphetamine crazed mountain-goat. The payoff, when it arrives, certainly isn’t worth the effort: I’d figured it out, well before the dramatic revelation arrives on-screen.

So convoluted and murky is the story, that I found myself increasingly tuning out, and was more or less disinterested in the characters’ fates, most damningly that of Sook-hee. About the only person I cared about was her little, moon-faced daughter, whose serious expressions provoked more emotion in me than all the contortions performed by the plotting. Director Jung, like David Leitch of Atomic Blonde, has a background as a stuntman before moving into direction, and perhaps that explains why it feels as if the attention and effort here have gone into those elements. In comparison, the script is something which could well have been cobbled together on the back of a beer-mat, after an all-night video session, and then run through a shredder in an attempt to instill it with some artistic merit. Jung is certainly an action director to watch, and I’ll be very interested to see where he can possibly go from here. Is there a setting for cinematic violence above eleven?

Dir: Jung Byung-gil
Star: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung

Diamond Cartel


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“Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium”

This Kazakhstani production took its time in seeping out to the West, having originally been filmed over a three-year (!) spell back in 2011-13. While slickly produced, and with some impressive sequences of action, its storyline is garbled nonsense, to the point of almost being incomprehensible, and is utterly without heart or soul. Millionaire crime-boss Musar (Assante) is negotiating the purchase of a renowned diamond from another gang, but the deal goes south, with both diamond and cash ending up in the hands of one of his assassins, Aliya (Mukhamedzhanova). She goes on the run with her former boyfriend (Frandetti), pursued by her more recent boyfriend, who is another one of Musar’s hitmen.

Which would be fine, if that’s what this was. But the film muddies the waters terribly, with secondary plots, a bevy of superfluous characters, and a convoluted flashback structure which explains how Aliya went from a casino croupier to part of Musar’s posse. In some ways, that story would probably have been more interesting that the one actually told, not least because of all the other leather-clad hitwomen he keeps hanging around his lair. Not that they appear to do much; outside of the attempted double-cross at the diamond handover, they are notable by their absence from the action elements, disappointingly.

I should instead talk about the supporting cast, which is far more laden with Western stars than you’d expect from the source. Though by “laden”, this does include people with one scene, such as Michael Madsen. And by “stars”, beyond Assante, I mean people such as Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Bolo Yeung, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister. But the name which stands out is Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole – sadly, in his final film role before his death in December 2013. Here, bizarrely, he plays a Kazakhstani customs agent. And it’s not even O’Toole’s own voice, because his performance has been dubbed over, making for a sad end to a stellar career. Though he’s not alone in losing out in post-production, with even the lead actress, as well as her copious voice-over narration, being dubbed too.

The only aspects which pass muster are the technical ones. Mukhammed-Ali seems to have studied at the same school of flashy visuals as the other Kazakhstan director, Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us Wanted and The Arena. It’s hard to deny that the frequent car-chases and shoot-outs here are handled with a decent degree of hyperviolent flair. But this is in pursuit of nothing having any significance. The plot falls somewhere between uninteresting and incoherent, and the audience will have little or no reason to care about even the reasonably photogenic lead, whose story this is supposed to be. It comes over as little more than a poorly-constructed exercise in stunt casting, with a succession of somewhat recognizable names, passing across the screen to trivial effect. I hope they at least got a nice holiday in Kazakhstan out of it.

Dir: Salamat Mukhammed-Ali
Star: Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, Aleksey Frandetti, Armand Assante, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa
a.k.a. The Whole World at Our Feet

The Hundredth Queen, by Emily R. King

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

An interesting premise gets wasted, buried under a muddied writing style which sets up in one direction, then abandons it for another. Orphan Kalinda has been brought up by The Sisterhood in their remote temple in the mountains (kinda Indian, kinda Sumerian, annoyingly non-specific), training in the ways of a warrior – though others have far more talent in the era. Her life is upended when the local monarch, Tarek, visits the temple and selects Kalinda to be his next wife. Next, as in he already has 99, not to mention his additional courtesans. The problem for Kalinda is, this sets up a tournament in which she can be challenged by the other women, who seek to supplant her.

The journey to Tarek’s palace is barely under way before two issues rear their head, that drive the plot the rest of the way. One is Kalinda falling into a forbidden love for Deven, the guard who’s escorting her. The other is her encounter with a “bhuta”. These are half-human, half-demons, who exist in four kinds, each possessing power over the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Might this, perhaps, be connected to the mysterious fevers from which Kalinda has been suffering from a child, only kept in check by her daily consumption of a potion?

Of course it is. For the book rarely strays from the obvious, virtually from the start when Kalinda immediately falls head-over-heels in love, with literally the first man she has ever seen. There’s no sense of chemistry here at all, or of a romance growing naturally out of the characters. It seems shoehorned in there because, dammit, it was on a checklist of things fantasy books need to be successful, which King found online somewhere. The interactions between Kalinda and the other women weren’t much more convincing, sitting somewhere between Mean Girls and The Hunger Games.

I’m not even clear on the details of the tournament, which is supposed to be the main plot device of the book. Who challenges who? What are the mechanics here? What does Tarek get out of it? It’s the ultimate plot-device, since his motivation for setting up the event is entirely obscure. It’s not as if he can exactly stream the event on pay-per-view. There are a couple of plot twists later on, that did manage to engage my interest briefly – these did help explain why Tarek picked Kalinda, when we had repeatedly been assured earlier of her plainness and lack of talent.

However, the actual competition is largely glossed over with a disapproving frown, culminating in a big, damp squib of pacifistic grrl power. This is less drama than melodrama, with every character being exactly what they appear to be, and possessing few hidden depths. The last third of this proved to be a particular slog, and it’s not a universe to which I’ll be returning in future.

Author: Emily R. King
Publisher: Skyscape, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

The Tournament (1974)

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“Face off.”

There’s a lot of chit-chat about face, honour and respect here. It begins when the master of a kung-fu school, Lau, has his daughter kidnapped by local hoodlums, after he won’t cough up protection money. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than using his skills to kick their arses, he sends two students to Thailand, including his son, Hong (Wong) in an effort to win the necessary funds. Hong loses, the other student is killed, and Lau is drummed out of the local Kung-Fu Association for having disgraced the name of Chinese martial arts by losing to foreigners. He’s so devastated, he hangs himself, leaving it up to his daughter, Siu Fung (Mao) to restore the family name, learn how to mesh Chinese kung-fu with Thai boxing, and rescue her sister. Quite the “to-do” list, I’d say.

There are 10 extremely good minutes in the middle of this, beginning when Siu Fung has to fend off a predatory takeover bid from a Japanese karate school, and their top fighter, played by Korean kicker Whang In Sik. This is immediately followed by a visit from the Kung-Fu Association, who are intent on testing her skills. Repeatedly. And against a range of opponents, including a particularly impressive battle against a young, fairly long-haired Sammo Hung. It’s glorious, and probably just about justifies the rest of the film. Because the remainder is likely only of interest if you are really into Thai boxing bouts, and since the great majority of these do not involve Mao, I was severely unimpressed.

The story is particularly poorly-written, to the extent I still couldn’t tell you with any degree of confidence what the competition proclaimed in the title actually was. Similarly, the kidnapping with which the film opens, is entirely forgotten about, for what seems like forever. Even by the low standards of plotting for the time, this is particularly weak sauce. Not least, because it’s clear that Mao is a better fighter than Wong, both in storyline and cinematic martial-arts terms – and that’s even before heading off to learn Thai boxing. For example, the sequence described above starts when Siu Fung has to rescue her brother from the Japanese, after their master has beaten Hong up. So why is she stuck on the sidelines for so much of the film? It’s immensely frustrating.

Random trivia note: the home of the Kung-Fu Association is located at 41 Cumberland Road, which in reality, was the last house Bruce Lee bought. He purchased it in July 1972, and lived there until his death a year later. Barely 12 months further on, this movie came out in Hong Kong: seems a little tastelessly quick by Golden Harvest to turn Lee’s home into a location. This nugget is likely more interesting than a good 80% of the film – specifically, the 80% which does not feature Angela Mao kicking ass. But as my gift to you, the YouTube video below is paused to start at the beginning of the best bit. You’re welcome!

Dir: Wong Fung
Star: Angela Mao, Carter Wong, Wilson Tong, Sammo Hung

The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story

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“Life imitating art, imitating life”

Del Castillo is the undisputed queen of the action telenovela. She made her name as the original “Queen of the South” in one of the most popular entries ever, La Reina Del Sur, and has since followed that up with Ingobernable and Dueños del Paraíso, playing the Mexican First Lady and another ambitious drug dealer. It was while filming the latter, that the stranger than fiction story told in this documentary reached its climax.

As we mentioned at the end of the Reina article, in January 2012, she Tweeted about notorious drug-lord El Chapo. Three and a half years later, after he had been arrested, and subsequently escaped from prison, this led to her and Sean Penn visiting the fugitive, with the plan being to make a film based on his life. Except Penn turned it into an interview for Rolling Stone, the Mexican government got very upset with Del Castillo, and when El Chapo was recaptured, they said it was largely a result of the Del Castillo/Penn visit – with all that implies. The actress was investigated for money laundering, the charges being dropped only a couple of days ago, and is still largely persona non grata in her home country.

The three-part series tells events from her perspective. and even though she was a producer on it, Del Castillo doesn’t necessarily come out clean. From her first Tweet, she seems a little naive. “Let’s traffic love,” she says to a man who supposedly told authorities subsequently, he had killed between two and three thousand people. It feels as if Del Castillo believed the narcocorrida hype: bosses like El Chapo are often seen as folk heroes in Mexico, along the lines of Robin Hood. How much their social works are genuine, and how much practical business sense, is open to question. She does say she understands the cinematic meaning of the word “cut”, and lets go of the characters she plays. Yet I also suspect Kate may have felt that playing a trafficker on TV made her El Chapo’s “equal” somehow.

You can certainly argue that journeying into the heart of the Mexican countryside to meet the most wanted man on the world, who seems to have a crush on you, shows poor judgment. On the other hand, she does come over as courageous. While you can question her ideals, it’s hard to say she’s not entirely committed to them, regardless of the personal cost. Even now, you sense the personal cost has, if anything, probably hardened her resolve. I can’t blame her at all for that: the Mexican government appear to have engaged in a campaign of harassment of Del Castillo, little short of a vendetta. This involves everything up to, and including, fabricating text messages between her and El Chapo, with the intention of damaging her reputation and credibility.

Penn comes off little better. Though we don’t hear directly from the actor – he refused to take part in the documentary – the evidence presented here seems to suggest he used her for his own ends. Most damningly, he got journalist accreditation from Rolling Stone for himself and the film producers who also went with them – but not Del Castillo. And while he may not have directly or wittingly informed the authorities of their plans, it’s quite possible it was through his circle they became aware of the trip. In a subsequent media statement about the film, Penn’s camp didn’t hold back, saying, “This is nothing but a cheap, National Enquirer-esque tale spun by a delusional person whose hunger for fame is both tawdry and transparent.” I think it’s safe to say, if Kate ever gets to make her El Chapo movie, Penn will not be taking part.

While mostly talking heads and old news footage, it does a decent job of weaving the narrative, despite the lack of contemporary input from two-thirds of the people in the photo above. It was still interesting enough to make Chris become one of Del Castillo’s 3.5 million followers on her bilingual Twitter feed. Now, if only I can get her into watching Dueños del Paraíso

Dir: Carlos Armella

Here Alone

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“Forest of the Dead”

A viral plague has decimated mankind, turning its victims in mindless, flesh-craving ghouls. One of the few to have survived is Ann (Walters), who has taken up residence in the woods, where she has camped out. Ann uses the survival skills she received from her now-absent husband, Jason (West), only occasionally having to emerge and risk the threat of the infected, in order to gather supplies. Her secluded, yet relatively safe existence is disturbed, when she finds an injured man, Chris (Thompson) and his teenage daughter, Liv (Piersanti) on a road. They are supposed to be on their way north, to where the epidemic is reported to be in check. Yet Chris, in particular, seems curiously unwilling to be on his way.

If there’s nothing particularly new or inventive about this version of the zombie apocalypse, it’s not without its small-scale merits. Ann is far from some kind of survivalist Mary Sue: she’s barely getting by, perhaps having paid less attention to her wilderness lessons than she should have. Probably wisely, for a small budget film, the infected – the term “zombies” is never used – are kept largely out of sight, heard more than they are seen. While their shrieks are unnerving enough, the tension comes more from internal forces: the opaque nature of Chris’s motives, for example, or Ann’s dwindling supply of bullets. The former are particularly troubling: the dynamic between Chris and Liv just seems “off” in a variety of ways, and I was not surprised when this played a part in the film’s climax. However, things do not unfold in the way I expected, so credit for that.

The film does cheat a bit with regard to previous events. At the beginning of the film, Ann is already alone, and information about what happened to Jason and their child, is only doled out in teaspoon-sized flashbacks over the course of subsequent events. It matters, because these flashbacks reveal quite a lot about her character, and the way she interacts with other people: information we otherwise don’t have. By not getting it until later, we end up retro-fitting it into what we’ve already seen, and I’m not certain the additional complexity of structure imposed, serves any real purpose.

In the earlier stages, it reminded me of The Wall, with its tale of a woman thrown back entirely onto her own resources. While that solo adventure would have been difficult to sustain, it is the most interesting and original part of proceedings. I was rather disappointed when Chris + Liv showed up, because the entire dynamic changes at that point, and the film becomes something with which I’m somewhat too familiar. While there are twists down the stretch, this rejects the chance to truly separate itself from the large pack of zombie apocalypse movies in terms of plot. Fortunately, a solid performance from Walters helps the film sustain viewer interest through the weaker second half.

Dir: Rod Blackhurst
Star: Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson, Gina Piersanti, Shane West

Manami Toyota retires from pro wrestling

Manami Toyota is perhaps the greatest wrestler you’ve never heard of – at least, unless you’ve an interest in the Japanese women’s version of the sport, known as joshi puroresu. There, she has been its almost undisputed queen for much of the past three decades. That covers the span from her debut on August 5, 1987, at the age of just 16, through to her farewell show which took place on November 3 in Yokohama’s Daisan Bashi Hall. She was in the vanguard of, and a significant force in, the joshi resurgence which took place during the mid-nineties, when women’s wrestling crossed over beyond its usual audience. That likely peaked with the Big Egg Wrestling Universe cross-promotion show at Tokyo Dome in November 1994. A crowd of more than thirty thousand attended the event, which ran for more than ten hours.

If you’ve only ever seen the WWE Divas, then joshi will come as a shock, with monsters like the aptly-named Aja Kong punting their opponents around the ring with brutal efficiency. Toyota was slightly-built in comparison: billed at 150 pounds, and that likely an exaggeration for marketing purposes. But her bouts against far larger opponents were still credible, because of three main things. First, her incredible technical ability: there’s good reason a video exists on YouTube called “Top 60 Moves of Manami Toyota“! Secondly, her fearless high-flying. for example, I remember a match outside in the rain, where Toyota was still climbing up the light rigging and flinging herself off it. Third, an insane level of stamina. She could wrestle 60 minutes non-stop, and at a pace few wrestlers of either gender could match.

Yet that intensity is what led to her retirement, Toyota increasingly suffering from neck and shoulder issues as a result of the in-ring punishment she both took and dished out. Or, should I say, her second retirement. For Toyota first “quit” due to a silly unspoken rule of the All Japan Wrestling promotion that its women wrestler had to retire at the age of 26, whether they wanted to or not. Toyota would continue for two decades after that point, surviving the fall of AJW and the resulting disintegration of the joshi scene into a slew of smaller, independent promotions. Her feuds and partnerships with the likes of Toshiyo Yamada, Akira Hokuto and Kyoko Inoue remain unmatched, even now. And, of course, Toyota would not go out quietly, wrestling fifty opponents at her retirement show, before then fighting a best-of-three falls match against her designated heiress, Tsukasa Fujimoto.

Legendary pro wrestling writer Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) called Toyota “one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, regardless of gender,” and awarded 5+ stars to more of her matches than any other woman. Melter was famously stingy with those rankings: few would see more than one in a year. But at the peak of her career and talents, between 1991 and 1995, Toyota was involved in seventeen such matches, including three in one week. She was part of WON’s Match of the Year in both 1992 and 1995, and won named its Most Outstanding Wrestler in 1995. Neither award is divided by gender, meaning she beat all men that year as well. She was just that damn good.

Below, you’ll find a playlist including 11 of the 17 five-star matches. They might help give you some insight as to why many regard her as the greatest of all time.