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.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter smashes box-office records

It may have under-performed in North America, but as with the previous couple of installments, Alice and crew blew away the competition overseas. Having already taken more in Japan than the US and Canada, the film just opened in China, and also surpassed its entire domestic theatrical run there on Friday alone. It earned $33.6 million on that one day, compared to $26.5 million to date here. The film then took even more on Saturday, and finished the weekend having grossed an amazing $94.3 million. This tally makes it the biggest overseas opening ever in China, according to Sony, and only second all-time behind local production, Lost in Hong Kong

The success comes despite the first three films never having received any kind of theatrical release there. This absence was due to a combination of the country’s limited number of “slots” for imported movies, and censorship rules that tend to hammer anything involving ghosts, the dead, etc. For instance, last July, the Ghostbuster remake was denied a release there, for precisely the latter reason, and World War Z was also blocked in China. Though the latter’s ban may have had less to do with zombie killing, and more to do with Brad Pitt; the government haven’t been a fan of his since he made Seven Years in Tibet, which was harshly critical of authorities there.

The Final Chapter does not seem to have escaped entirely unscathed. The running time of the “approved” version for China comes in at about eight minutes shorter than the version we saw here in the West, but this does not seem to have had any impact at all on the film’s commercial appeal. As a convenient yardstick, also opening this weekend was the Assassin’s Creed movie, which earned twice as much as RE6 in North America. But in China, its Friday tally was only $6.3 million, earning less than one-fifth of Milla’s moolah.

The success also continues a trend which has seen the franchise increasing its non-domestic box-office percentage almost since the beginning. Below are the figures for each film: the North American box-office, then the overseas box-office, the total, and the percentage of the total derived from foreign territories:

  • Resident Evil – $40.1m, $62,9m, $103.0m, 61.0%
  • Resident Evil: Apocalypse – $51.2m, $78.1m, $129.3m, 60.4%
  • Resident Evil: Extinction – $50.6m, $97.8m, $148.4m, 65.9%
  • Resident Evil: Afterlife – $60.1, $240.1m, $300.2m, 80.0%
  • Resident Evil: Retribution – $42.3m, $197.7, $240.0, 82.4%

With The Final Chapter coming to the end of its domestic run, its percentage will be skewed even further. The Chinese weekend pushes overseas box-office well past $200 million, so its final percentage of theatrical takings could end up being north of 90% from overseas. Even as these markets become more important, representing 73% in 2015 (it was a minority a recently as 2004), and while that money may not equate dollar-for-dollar, due to different slicing of the piece, it would still be a striking skew. Indeed, it’d be almost unparalleled for any English-language film – although I note that another video-game adaptation, Warcraft, came close, reaching 89.1%.

This may well be Milla Jovovich’s last foray into the Umbrella universe. Yet its continued success worldwide means I’d be very surprised if this is the last we see of Resident Evil as a movie franchise.

Win the audiobook version of ‘The Smoking Gun Sisterhood’!

Your attention please. Do you:

  • Like audiobooks?
  • Like action heroines?
  • Like free stuff?

We’ve got you covered. For we have 10 copies to give away of the audiobook version of The Smoking Gun Sisterhood, by Thad Brown. This collection of short stories received our Seal of Approval, and we heartily endorse the author’s description of the book as containing “Admiring and respectful celebrations of gun-packing women as kick-butt heroines, for readers of both genders who appreciate heroines of this type.” Check out further reviews on the Amazon page, or here’s the publisher’s blurb, which should whet your appetite even further!

Ten women, each one between a rock that might be her tombstone and a hard place that it may take a gun to blast her way out of. Author Thad Brown’s collection of hard bitten, bullet paced fiction centered on women embroiled in violence and danger takes pulp to a whole new level. Being a woman often means fighting against all odds. And the women in Brown’s tales are charter members of The Smoking Gun Sisterhood. This is a fantastic, double-barrelled collection from author Thad Brown and Pro Se Productions.

At the time, it was a self-published work, but has since become available on Amazon – and now, as an audio book. Which is where we come in, since in conjunction with the narrator, Aisling Gray, we are giving away 10 copies of the audio version of The Smoking Gun Sisterhood through Note: winners do not need to have an audible account, though there’s no reason why you wouldn’t want one; I believe iTunes and other downloads work.

To win, all you have to do is get social with us.

  1. Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.
  2. Then send us a DM (Twitter) or a message (Facebook) with your email address.
  3. Er, that’s it.

First 10 people to do so will be put on Santa’s nice list, and will receive their copy in time for Christmas listening. This contest will close when all 10 copies have been given away; we’ll let you know when that is. So if you are reading this – act now, while stocks last… Ho-ho-ho! Heavily armed season’s greetings to one and all!

Ghost in the Shell trailer released

slice-ghostintheshellI was beginning to wonder. With the March 2017 date fast catching up, all we’d seen had been a couple of teaser clips, and I was bracing myself for an announcement that the release had been pushed back. But here we are, with the first official trailer for the film. I must confess, at this point I am largely unable to comment on how this relates to the other versions of the story, in manga and anime, since it has been a very long time [nearer 20 years than 15] since I read and saw those, and a lot of the universe has taken place since then. I will be catching up over the next few months, and you can expect a blast of retro-GitS coverage here in the second half of March.

But, on its own terms, this looks every bit as visually stunning as you’d expect from the director of Snow White and the Huntsman, a film which, if certainly flawed, was one of the best-looking movies of the past few years. I think those aspects are probably going to hit it out of the park. But in terms of story-line, it does feel more than somewhat generic, more like a female version of Robocop than anything else. We’ve all seen the “Who am I, really?” thing before, to the extent that it’s bordering on cliché. The previous versions have been renowned for being deep, though that can often be a problematic direction for a feature film to take. For instance, I caught a bit of The Matrix Reloaded the other day, in particular the scene with the Architect burbling nonsense like, “Your life is the sum of a remainder of an unbalanced equation inherent to the programming of the matrix.” Just give us more of ScarJo in slow-mo, please.

Speaking of which… The casting of Ms. Johansson. I’m just going to copy/paste an online comment, “I’m so sick of Hollywood casting white women in roles that were meant for cyborgs. #OscarsSoOrganic.” Yes, this is sarcasm, in case it’s not 110% clear. But I’m looking forward to seeing both Pilou Asbæk and Takeshi Kitano; the former has been a house choice from his time in Danish political series Borgen, and the latter is an icon of Japanese yakuza films for more than two decades. They’re going to bring it, I’m fairly certain. There’s still time for this to go in either direction – I seem to recall Aeon Flux having a fairly kick-ass opening trailer – and I’m sure the GitS purists will find plenty to complain about. But as someone whose expectations are currently unaffected by previous versions, this looks almost certain to be a trip to the cinema.

There’s a lot riding on it. While Hollywood has had enormous success in mining North American comics for movies, going outside has yet to lead to major international success. Between Ghost and Valerian, 2017 will be a major test of their commercial viability, and beyond that, the $200 million (!) production of Battle Angel is already heading towards a July 2018 release. Success will inevitably lead to more; failure will not only hurt the future prospects of other manga adaptations, it could undo a lot of the action heroine positive buzz provided by the success of The Hunger Games.

New Wonder Woman trailer and posters released

[Click to enlarge posters, in new window]

A second trailer has come out for Wonder Woman, in advance of the film’s release in America on June 9, 2017. And, I must admit, I’m quite stoked by something which looks not dissimilar to Agent Carter in terms of period feel (obviously a little earlier), but with the mayhem ramped up to 11. This one does reveal a bit more than the first trailer, and it’s clear what brings Diana Prince out of her reclusive existence on the island of Themyscira – an assault by German forces renders Amazon neutrality no longer feasible. As she says, in voice-over, “The closer you get, the more you see the great darkness within,” and despite opening with a present-day scene, it seems likely the bulk of this will take place in and around World War I. It’s an interesting choice, not one mined for superhero activity. But the Great War’s brutality offers perhaps the starkest contrast to the peaceful lives of the Amazons, and it’s also a time when women were fighting for equality.

There is a bunch of particularly cool stuff, but I got particular chills as the shot of Diana riding over the top and into trench warfare on her horse. Good to see they’re retained both her bullet-deflecting bracelets and the lasso of truth. No sign yet of her invisible plane, though given the era, presumably it would have to be an invisible biplane. Chris Pine looks largely useless as the obvious romantic interest, and let’s hope he’s relegated to the sideline position he deserves. I certainly don’t want any more of the “She’s my secretary” malarkey mentioned here – we certainly got enough of that in the first season of Agent Carter! Still no word on how the main villain will be, but the Internet’s general consensus is that Danny Huston’s German officer is likely to be Ares, the god of war. However, there is a glimpse of another potential nemesis, in the disfigured woman who appears to be responsible for the poison gas. All told, it mostly looks very slick and highly effective.

However, I’m forced to be cautious, as I am getting something of an Aeon Flux vibe from this production – and we all know how that went. Flux‘s director, Karyn Kusama, was employed on the strength of a small scale “feminist” film, Girlfight, but fell ferociously short at the task of putting together a $60+ million SF spectacle (although it’s not perhaps as bad as often claimed). WW is being helmed by Patty Jenkins, also a director without any real experience of big-budget, cinematic spectacle. Her last feature was back in 2003, the one she’s best known for, Monster – and which coincidentally starred the future Aeon, Charlize Theron. It probably doesn’t help that the DC movies so far have been critical failures, particularly when compared to their Marvel counterparts.

Additionally, there was an anonymous tirade – albeit from an anonymous ex-Warner Bros employee – which said of Wonder Woman, “People inside are already confirming it’s another mess.” Murphy roundly rejected such criticism, but the problems with the DC universe are undeniable. The trailer looks good – but if you can’t find two minutes of good in your feature for a trailer, then you really have a problem (I’m looking at you, Ghostbusters). Mind you, Suicide Squad had a totally bad-ass trailer as well and the end result was “Meh, save for Harley Quinn.” Still, we’ll see. There’s a lot riding on it, not just for DC, but the future of large budget action-heroines in general. While a WW failure won’t stop Captain Marvel from appearing in 2019, it could certainly have a chilling effect on other superheroines’ chances of reaching the screen.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter trailer released

resevilDoesn’t time fly? The last entry in the Resident Evil franchise, Retribution, was released in September 2012, so it’ll be a gap of almost four and a half years by the time The Final Chapter is finally released in January. It shouldn’t have been that long: filming was scheduled to begin in August 2014, but Milla Jovovich’s pregnancy caused shooting to be postponed Director Paul W.S. Anderson is also Milla’s husband, so he can’t exactly complain! Their second child was successfully born in April 2015, and filming eventually commended in September that year.

The production was not without problems, most notably a horrific accident involving stunt double Olivia Jackson. A motorcycle she was riding collided with a camera rig: per Wikipedia, this resulted in “cerebral trauma, a crushed face, a severed artery in her neck, a paralyzed arm, several broken ribs, a shattered scapula, a broken clavicle, torn fingers with a thumb that needed to be amputated, and five nerves torn out of her spinal cord.” I’ve read elsewhere Jackson’s face was actually “degloved,” which is as awful as it sounds. An even more serious accident followed, with crew member Ricardo Cornelius being crushed to death by a vehicle on set.

On a happier note, a number of characters return from Retribution, including Alice, Claire Redfield (Aly Larter), Albert Wesker (Shaun Roberts) and Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Iain Glen). It takes up proceedings immediately after the end of Retribution, and sees Alice return to where it all began, in Raccoon City. There, she has to take on once more the Umbrella Corporation, which is preparing its final push against the last survivors of humanity. [I must confess, I had forgotten they had any kind of motive, beyond setting up set-pieces in which Alice can kick ass and look cool doing it. I think I may need to watch Retribution again, between now and January]. Though it appears Alice has lost her superhuman abilities, which is going to make things… different as far as her zombie-slaying is concerned. What the hell is she supposed to use, man, harsh language?

Fortunately, the trailer makes clear that sarcasm is going to remain a minor weapon in Alice’s arsenal. Accompanied by the rocking sounds of Guns ‘n’ Roses, we see Alice riding her motorcycle back to Raccoon City, and indeed, returning to her literal roots.  You definitely get the sense of things having come full-circle, not least with the return to the laser-protected corridor, which provided one of the first “F___ me! Rewind that!” moments of the series. I hope the defense system has retained the sense of dramatic escalation shown there. So, generally, I’m looking forward to this, and hopefully it will provide a suitable exclamation point for a franchise which will have run for close to 15 years.

Of course, putting The Final Chapter in your title is no guarantee of anything. Just ask Friday the 13th, which continued for nineteen years and seven further movies after their “Final Chapter” in 1984, then was rebooted entirely in 2009. If the box-office returns are good, I would not be in the slightest surprised if Sony/Constantin Films keep squeezing the cash-cow. While the returns have been moderate in North America – the biggest being 2010’s Afterlife at $60.1 million – they have done increasingly well overseas. Over 82% of Retribution‘s income came from there, and the series as a whole has grossed over $915 million. Not bad for a total production cost of $250 million.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens in North America on January 27.

Wonder Woman trailer released

wonderwomanposterDC has always seemed to be stuck in second-place when it comes to their movies, trapped behind the behemoth which is Marvel and their “Cinematic Universe”. The underwhelming performance, both critical and commercial, of Batman vs. Superman seemed to solidify that. Combining perhaps the two biggest names in comic-book history should have led to equally spectacular results, but after the expected enormous opening, the film had no legs at all, pulling in more that debut weekend than it did over the entire rest of its theatrical run. They’ll be hoping for better with Suicide Squad which comes out in a couple of weeks, and have already set their tent-pole release for summer next year.  The much-anticipated Wonder Woman film, starring Gail Gadot, comes out on June 2nd, and the first trailer was released over the weekend at San Diego ComicCon.

It’s interesting that they have beaten Marvel to the action heroine punch. While Marvel have created TV Series such as Agent Carter and Jessica Jones, there’s still no firm word of any, say, Black Widow movie. Their only scheduled heroine is Captain Marvel, and that’s not due until March 2019; also announced at ComicCon this weekend, in what could be seen as a spoiling tactic, she will be played by Oscar-winner Brie Larsen. This delay leaves the floor open for DC, who will be seeking to wash away memories of the disaster which was Catwoman. Arguably, that 2004 film sunk the comic-book action heroine movie, single-handed, for more than a decade. [Truth be told, it’s not that bad. It ain’t good, certainly – but it’s no Batman & Robin] The stage was already set, with Wonder Woman making a supporting appearance in B.vs.S. And it’s this which brought me the first surprise about the trailer, because unlike that, it appears that Wonder Woman will be a period piece, set during the First World War. I guess being created by Zeus gives a lady certain advantages in the “aging gracefully” department.

While I don’t know the comics [Pretty much all I know of WW is Lynda Carter. Sue me] , this appears to be a deviation from them, which had her showing up in the Second World War. However, it would certainly explain why she more or less bailed on the human race for the next century, having experienced close to the worst that mankind could offer – with the emphasis firmly on “man” there. There’s some speculation we’ll find out Ares, the god of war, and WW’s nemesis, is behind everything, which would make sense. Given WW’s literally near-divine level talents, it would take some of equivalent power to pose much of a threat. Perhaps who she’s going to see with her Very Large Sword? However, in terms of sheer trailer-iness, I would say this comes close to hitting it out of the park. It lays out the basics of the story without giving too much away, showcases the look, provides some really cool moments of action, and leaves me wanting to head straight to the cinema and begin queuing up.

Of course, we’ve all seen movies that have had great trailers, yet the finished product has failed to deliver [the last Bond film comes immediately to mind]. There does seem to be a little too much Captain Kirk/Chris Pine in this. I hope they don’t bog things down with romantic subplot, for that would be insufferable. If he’s much more than the heroic sacrifice, whose death triggers WW into action, I’m not going to be happy. So I’m going to restrain myself from proclaiming this as the best action heroine movie of 2017 quite yet. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s what I’m saying on June 2 next year, when the film is released.

Jessie Graff: From Chick Fight to American Ninja Warrior

“Being strong doesn’t make you manly or unfeminine. It just means you can do more things.” — Jessie Graff

At the risk of touting our own hipster cred, we’ve been fans of Ninja Warrior for long before it hit the mainstream on NBC – we first wrote about it here, and the women who competed on the show, back in 2007, when it was screening on the late, lamented cable channel G4. Since then, America has gone from having tryout for the Japanese original, to its own, entirely independent version of the show – on which both men and women compete, with no mercy to the latter. Success has, understandably, been hard to come by. One of the few to have completed the course is Jessie Graff – even after the qualifying course was toughened up for this season, she still was able to make it through, as you can see below:

But Graff is not just a game-show competitor. She’s a stuntwoman, whose credits include everything from The Walking Dead to X-Men: First Class. She’s also a black-belt in taekwondo, and held the women’s pole-vault record during her time at the University of Nebraska, before moving to Hollywood – initially seeking to follow a career in acting, before her physical abilities led her into the stunt world. She first appeared in 2013, as part of the show’s fifth season, wearing a chicken costume, for reasons we’ll get to. Despite not appearing to take the course as seriously as many of the male competitors, she qualified for the regional finals at her first attempt.

A bad knee injury sidelined her for 2014, perhaps preventing her from becoming among the first woman to complete a qualifying course – that prize went to  Kacy Catanzaro. But it allowed Graff to focus on improving her grip strength, a necessity for a number of the obstacles, and in season 7 last year, she became the only female competitor that series to qualify for the national finals in her own right. This season, as the above video shows, she’s seeking to go even further. Now, we sit on the couch, with our Doritos, and cheer on all the women, from Catanzaro through Michelle Warnky and Meagan Martin. But Graff’s sense of fun – most obvious in her choice of attire – is what had particularly endeared her to us.

If you need further evidence of that, I present you the video below, in which she and fellow stunt-woman Tree O’Toole recreate the “chicken fight” sequence from animated series Family Guy, as a live-action fisticuffs extravaganza. Bonus credit: cameo appearance (at around the 2:20 mark) by veteran stunt-woman Jeannie Epper, who mentored Zoë Bell. Watch it, and Graff wearing a chicken dress on her American Ninja Warrior debut later that year, will make a great deal more sense!

Xena Reboot: Yes! No! Maybe?

xenaWell, it was a glorious 24 hours of hope, while it lasted. On Monday, the Hollywood Reporter wrote that NBC were “in the extremely early development stages” of preparing a reboot of the much-loved action-heroine series, which originally began in 1995. Producers of the original show, Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi, were reportedly involved, continuing a partnership which had also brought us Spartacus and the upcming Ash vs. Evil Dead – both of which included roles for Lucy Lawless, a.k.a. Mrs. Tapert. There was no firm word as to whether Lawless would have been involved in the reboot, but based on that track record, it would seem likely. Albeit not as the heroine, the piece saying “the new Xena would have to have the charisma and charm of Lawless and the smarts of The Hunger Games‘ Katniss as producers are said to be looking for a sophisticated and smart superhero for a new generation.”

This was certainly something Lawless had been keen on for quite some time. Just earlier this month, while appearing at San Diego Comic-Con to promote Ash vs. Evil Dead, she said: ” I’m pitching my ass off to make it happen, whether it’s with me or not… It’s about who’s got the rights. But that’s a piss poor excuse anymore… Freakin’ pay it. It’s better to have 80 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing. Don’t waste this opportunity. Reinvigorate that franchise… They’re fools not to bring it back.” Judging by the reaction in the media, Lawless is right: the demand for a Xena revival is clearly still there, and it wouldn’t be the only piece of fondly-remembered nineties television, with the Fox revival of The X-Files already being one of the most eagerly anticipated shows of 2016.

But, not so fast, those of you already strapping on the leather corset in preparation for the cosplay contest at XenaCon next year. For no sooner had the seed been planted, then the earth on which it was sown was strewn with cruel salt:

Pardon me, if I sob gently into my Gabrielle-shaped pillow for a bit. :) Though it’s kinda odd, because the Reporter piece definitely seemed like it was a good deal more than a “rumor”, with meat on its bones, though did acknowledge the development was still in the extremely early stages. One wonders whether the story was, perhaps, a trial balloon of sorts, sent up to see whether the public were enthusiastic about the potential, or whether it was greeted with derisive rolling of the eyes. That question seems to have been answered in the positive, and it would certainly fill a niche for action-heroines on network television, which right now appears virtually to begin and end with Agent Carter and Covert Affairs. But let’s not forget, NBC are also the network which got as far as the Wonder Woman pilot, with Adrienne Palicki, and that never even (officially) aired. There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.

If the idea does progress, the issue could then become one of casting. There is, obviously, a strong groundswell of support from the existing fanbase to have Lawless and Renee O’Connor [who has been quiet on the whole thing] reprise their roles, even though they are aged 47 and 44 respectively. While not “past it” – Vin Diesel, say, is 48, or the Rock is 43 – this is a full two decades older than they were when they started the series. Lawless has acknowledged this, saying she thinks it’d be funny for the reboot to have a “middle-aged Xena in a muumuu with a bad attitude and a smoking habit.” Hmm. It might be funny as a one-0ff, but not sure there is exactly much staying power in that idea! Who I would like to see take over, and it would also provide a nice sense of continuity, is Zoe Bell, who was Lawless’s stunt stand-in in the show. Performances in the like of Raze have shown her capable of holding her own on the screen; and think of the money they’d save in doubles…

We’ll see what develops. I’d like to see it, but have to say, my re-viewing of the series has been a bit like binge-watching Monty Python: yes, there were some absolute classics, but your brain kinda forgets all the filler and other, lower-quality stuff in between those gems. The potential is there, sure, yet also the potential for a fond memory of my younger days to be shredded. For an example, look no further than the Charlie’s Angels reboot? Enough said.