Kick-Heart

kick heart

KICK-HEART

Watched via digital download/BD

WHITNEY

CRYSTAL

PLOT: Kick-Heart is very atypical of your usual animated film. It was created by independent resources and funded by fans through Kickstarter. Because of its unusual origins, I believe that Kick-Heart has been able to break free from the tropes of anime as we know it today.

The plot for Kick-Heart seems very strange to me, and kind of like a simplified knock off of Nacho Libre. Maybe Japanese people love wrestling more than I realized, but I found the premise behind this short film to be very unexpected. The main character is male wrestler Maskman M, whose greatest dream is to fight in the same ring as Lady S, an immensely popular female wrestler. As you can probably guess already, there are strong S/m undertones to this show.

While Maskman M isn’t wrestling, he is living with and supporting a run down orphanage he grew up in. This orphanage is run by nuns who frown upon his profession, and inhabited by a hoard of little children all overly excited by his connection to wrestling. After his match he comes home to discover a new pretty young nun has joined the orphanage.

There is some awkward exposition of his home life, but luckily the show jumps forward to the final match, between him and Lady S (he got another opportunity to fight against her since he beat her team before). Maskman M enjoys every moment of his match against Lady S, but doesn’t let his pleasure distract him from trying to win (to get money for the orphanage). Unfortunately Lady S wins, but this ends up being okay, because she’s secretly the new nun who moved in!

PLOT: Kick-Heart was the first anime production to be completely funded through Kickstarter. It’s directed by Masaaki Yuasa, who’s done Kaiba and The Tatami Galaxy, and it’s only about twelve minutes long. Because it’s so different from most anime, I think it’s important to know that background information going into a review.

Because Kick-Heart is so short, the plot is really simple. There’s a wrestler, Maskman M, who’s a masochist and dearly wants to be beat up by a female wrestler, Lady S. During a pair match, he ends up defeating Lady S’s team, and so Maskman M gets his one-on-one showdown with Lady S. Will it fulfill all of his S&M desires? Probably.

When he’s not wrestling, Maskman M’s a businessman who donates all of the money he gets from wrestling to an orphanage he used to live at. The orphanage is pretty run-down and needs more money, so he hopes to get that money from wrestling. Interestingly, there’s a new nun who works there, and she’s also secretly a wrestler—in fact, she’s Lady S! The nun’s true identity isn’t revealed until the end of the short, as Kick-Heart mostly focuses on Maskman M, but it’s nice to know that the two are working for the same interests.

This movie flies by, feeling even shorter than its twelve minutes because the pacing and action are very well-timed. There’s one scene establishing the orphanage’s run-down state that feels awkwardly timed, but other than that Kick-Heart is a smooth, well-timed piece. The plot isn’t very surprising, but the focus on S&M and wrestling is new and refreshing enough to compensate. I’d really like a sequel to this to see more of Maskman M and Lady S’s over-the-top interactions.

You’re totally right. Kick-Heart is by no means innovative or shocking, but it has just the right flair to be widely loved by fans from all over. I could see this doing well in America, or any other country.

SETTING: Most of the action takes place in the ring, which is simplified down to basic backgrounds in order to focus on the action in all its abstract craziness. We are treated to a lot of day-dreaming and wild action shots as the wrestlers fight each other in the ring.

Setting is actually pretty integral to the plot since both wrestlers live double lives in and out of the ring. Maskman M acts like your typical businessman while off from work, and Lady S is secretly a nun. Both of these characters reside within a run down Catholic orphanage. Just like Crystal, I didn’t really care too much for the orphanage. It seemed plagiarized from prior movies and wasn’t personalized in a way that strengthened the character backgrounds. I think the characters would have been just as fine without its inclusion in the story.

I’d love to see more from within the wrestling ring. Maskman M was hilarious to watch, and the wrestling moves were spectacularly over-the-top, in a way that didn’t seem cheapened. I could definitely watch more of these matches.

There is some good comedy about the children’s personalities and the nuns disapproving of wrestling, but other than that the orphanage is very bland.

SETTING: There are really two settings in Kick-Heart: the orphanage and the wrestling ring. The orphanage throws together all of the stereotypes about how run-down they are, with a python even living in the bathroom. However, the nuns who run the orphanage are at least nice, and the children are happily given Lady S toys from Maskman M-as-businessman. As a home base for the movie’s two wrestlers, the orphanage works well at easily wrenching the viewers’ hearts, and the kids all seem fully deserving of any help they can receive. I think if Kick-Heart were longer the orphanage premise would get worn out, but it works well in this short format.

Being where Maskman M and Lady S always interact, the wrestling ring takes a backseat to their interplay. I have some vague memories of the Tokyo Dome and the audiences watching them, as well as how the ropes on the ring are used during the match, but other than that the ring didn’t leave much impression. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it just means the characters were that much fun to watch. I enjoyed seeing wrestling played seriously in this unlike the WWE stuff the U.S. has, especially since I haven’t seen any other wrestling anime.

Umm…I may be mistaken, but I was pretty certain the python was a poop joke about clogging the toilet…

Whoops, you caught me! This is what I get for relying too much on Wikipedia for summaries. :/

CHARACTERS: I really enjoyed the characters, even though their screen time was so short. They may have been simplified down to basic types, but they were lovable all the same.

Maskman M is practically a superhero. He has a physique that could rival any western hero, and he’s able to withstand a torrential beating, which just so happens to be exactly what he’s looking for. I found his character to be refreshingly confident in his identity and desires, which I think makes him all the more admirable.

Unfortunately for Lady S, the short film focused more on her rival. Her identity was used as a plot twist, so her actions and personality were left undeveloped. I really hope that more comes from these creators, and we’re able to get more of an outlook from her point-of-view. She is a strong female character who also seems confident in her sexuality. As a nun she seems unapologetic for her actions, which again makes me question why the focus on nuns and an orphanage. I’d like to see her with a different backstory.

The nuns and kids were a bit comical, but seemed a bit distracting more than anything. They give a nice charm to the backstory, but again, I think they weren’t necessary to the two main character interactions.

It’s interesting that a nun decided to moonlight as a sadistic wrestler, since that goes against a lot of what nuns stand for. It’s probably better not to think about it too much and to chalk it up to Japan’s misunderstandings about Western religions.

CHARACTERS: Kick-Heart works so well because of Maskman M, who’s a hilarious but lovable contradiction of physical appearance and sexual predilections. As a wrestler, he looks pretty tough and built, and as a businessman he looks like he could hold his own against anybody. Once he starts getting hit, though, he turns into a gooey submissive puddle. He tries to hide his desires, like when he buys S&M-themed porn, but I found the portrayal of his sexual tendencies to be refreshingly honest. Yes, this movie is really all about sex, but it covers S&M in a straightforward manner with full adults, which just made me like it all the more and respect Maskman M for struggling with himself so much.

As the sexual beacon for Maskman M, Lady S sees much less screen time and development, but she’s still entertaining when she appears. Once the audience is clued on to her being a nun at the end (which I already knew, since it was given away in the character bios on Kickstarter), they can then revel in the contradictions in her character, too. I do wish Kick-Heart did more with her instead of just focusing on Maskman M’s difficulties, especially since so few anime look at women’s sexual desires, but I loved seeing such a strong, dominant, unapologetic woman in anime. Too bad she’s still overly sexualized and primarily looked at via the male gaze.

Every other character is pretty much a blip on the radar next to Maskman M and Lady S, though there are a few who stood out to me. I liked the crazy variations in wrestlers, and the kid at the orphanage who likes Maskman M was cute. The nuns are, as expected, all nice people, and Maskman M’s agent is also as you’d expect him to be. There are more visual surprises with the characters than personality ones, but they’re all still nice to encounter.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Maybe it’s because I’m a westerner, but I loved the animation for Kick-Heart. The designs look like something straight out of a comic book. I loved the dramatic proportions and well defined, musculature. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not obsessed with ripped characters, I just found them to be more human than typical anime designs. Their arms and legs actually look like they’re flexing, like real anatomical movements. Sure they’re preposterous and over the top, but at least they don’t look like macaroni arms.

While the drawing style looks sketchy and unfiltered, the actual movements and animation are highly detailed and rendered beautifully. There isn’t an ounce of filler animation in this short film; it’s all constant and purposeful. If only all anime could be orchestrated with such powerful intention. I wouldn’t even mind having shorter series or episodes if we occasionally could get strong directing like Kick-Heart has.

ART STYLE/ANIMATION: Kick-Heart doesn’t look like any anime that I recall seeing. The character designs are all exaggerated in a Western style, with Maskman M and Lady S having huge shoulders, legs, and arms so that their proportions look like those of superheroes. The characters don’t look strictly Western, though, with their faces all having a distinct flair to them that’s hard to pin down. The characters all look a little abstract and surreal, especially when wearing wrestling masks. I really love the character designs for being so drastically different from everything else and completely in their own style. I did get bothered by Lady S’s breasts and her constantly-outlined nippled, though. Do we really have to draw that attention to her just because she’s sexually powerful?

Kick-Heart’s animation style blows everything else out of the water for me. I know Redline is a visual touchstone for a lot of people, but I prefer the crazy, sketchy look of Kick-Heart to that. All of the animation in Kick-Heart looks raw and almost unfinished, like the animators couldn’t stand to spend too much time on clean-up before hurrying on with the narrative. This is fully intentional, and it works out really well, bringing a raw energy and power to the work. Kick-Heart also has its visually-inventive moments that rely more on clean, abstract animation, and those just prove that the animators behind Kick-Heart know exactly what they’re doing. A lot of this film’s success rides on the adrenaline you can feel through the animation style and the connection that gives you with Maskman M.

My thoughts exactly, was there ever a second where you couldn’t see her nipples standing at attention?

OVERALL: Kick-Heart is a wonderful example of what animation can be. Japanese anime doesn’t always have to be long running tv series, or giant production movies. Not only is the filming and animation an exploration of the media, but the story as well. Kick-Heart steers clear of the mainstream tropes to bring a charming and refreshing simple story of love, with a bunch of humor tacked on. Sure it seems derivative of several western works, but it demonstrates how Japanese animation can branch out to embrace popular culture outside of the typical anime otaku fandoms.

Crystal is right in calling out the gender portrayals of the characters, but I still feel that there is hope for the two main characters. I think a good second episode, or some derivative works could expand upon Lady S’s character in a way that would be befitting of her. Actually, the more I think about it, the more she reminds me of Kekko Kamen. Either way, I think the characters are more positive than they are negative.

Overall, I think Kick-Heart is a worthwhile watch. It’s funny and sweet, with a touch of adult humor. Nothing distasteful, but I wouldn’t recommend that younger audiences watch this.

OVERALL: Though Kick-Heart’s definitely not perfect, I think it’s a big success for anime as a medium. For one thing, it shows that Kickstarter can successfully be used to fund anime, if the Japanese producers are willing to try it. For another thing, it brings a story and energy that are worlds away from most of the staid, boring anime that’s made today. Kick-Heart might not appeal to the hardcore anime fans the way it does to me, but I find it to be a much-needed breath of fresh air into the medium, just like Flowers of Evil.

Beyond those points, I still feel favorably towards Kick-Heart. Yes, I have some issues with its portrayal of Lady S and how it favors the male perspective, but the respectful look at S&M and the subversion of gender stereotypes more than make up for that. Lady S is still more sexualized than I’d like, but seeing a strong, sexually-confident woman like her in anime is so rare that I’ve got to take what I can get. Maybe one day we’ll see more women who can be both strong and sexually confident in anime, but until then, Lady S will do. And Maskman M can stand by her side as an example of a man who doesn’t want to feel emasculated by being submissive. We need more characters like these in media to show people the full range of possible gender roles and sexual preferences.

FINAL SCORE: (9/10) FINAL SCORE: (9/10)

One thought on “Kick-Heart

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