Kick-Heart is a 12-minute short directed by Masaaki Yuasa about a pair of famous professional wrestlers. The film is the first anime project from a major commercial animation studio in Japan to use successfully use crowdfunding to finance its production. Kick-Heart was screened on Toonami in 2013 and would later receive screenings at several festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival.
The short offers a strange but heartwarming tale about a man overcoming his desires in an effort to better those around him. The anime’s surreal style and exploration of sexual themes create a series of comedic and visually entertaining moments that will likely keep an audience’s attention, regardless of whether they are interested in the sport it portrays.
Kick-Heart’s Kickstarter Campaign
On October 1st, 2011 Production I.G initiated their Kickstarter campaign for Masaaki Yuasa’s Kick-Heart. After less than 24 hours, the project received over $12,000, and by October 5th, the company announced that they had “already reached 44% of our goal with around 831 backers.” Due to this considerable degree of support, the team announced that they would add a series of stretch goals for fans who wanted to push this experiment even further.
If we can reach $400,000, we will create a 10-minute companion Kick-Heart short film. That’s a total of 20 minutes of animation! […] If we are able to reach a goal of $1,000,000, Production I.G will create a Kick-Heart feature film. This is a very ambitious goal, but if fans really want to make a crowd-funded feature animated film, we thought we would provide the option.
While Production I.G didn’t raise enough money to produce an additional short or feature-length film, the studio still achieved an impressive level of funding. Over $200,000 was provided by 3,232 backers by October 31st, 2012. During the following nine months, the production of the short would be finalized, have its trailer released to the public and even be short-listed for Annecy 2013. Depending on the amount of money a person contributed, they would receive a variety of different pieces of merchandise, from being able to download digital copies of the film to receiving signed illustrations from Masaaki Yuasa himself.
Kick-Heart follows the life of Romeo Maki, a professional wrestler who goes by the name of Masked Man M. The short opens with a tag-team match between Masked Man M and his partner Chicken and Lady S and Vacuum Fat. While the male wrestlers initially struggle to combat their female opponents, they eventually manage to get the upper hand after Masked Man M becomes frustrated by the fight and proceeds to trip over Vacuum Fat, leading to her crashing violently into the spectator stands next to the ring.
Since this victory was unintended, the pair escape the stadium to avoid their manager’s wrath. Romeo then makes his way to the rundown orphanage that he operates and proceeds to greet all the children who have been waiting for his return. The staff of the facility introduces Romeo to Sister Juliet, a nun and an expert in the field of psychology. Later that night, Romeo receives a call from his boss, who informs him that Lady S has requested a rematch where the winner will receive $50,000 in prize money.
However, as soon as the no-holds-barred death match begins, Masked Man M is brutally tossed up, slapped about and squeezed to the point where he begins to violently hallucinate. The wrestler is then forced to decide between indulging in his own sexual fantasies or continuing the match in an effort to help the downtrodden children he looks after. While Masked Man M eventually loses the fight, he does choose the children over his own pleasures and wins the respect of his opponent. After some time spent in a hospital, Romeo makes his way back to the orphanage, and to his surprise, it’s under repair. To his shock, Sister Juliet is none other than Lady S, and she has donated the money she received from the fight to the orphanage.
From the very opening of the short, it’s made apparent that Romeo Maki derives pleasure from being hurt. The symbols of becoming love struck during his initial fight with Lady S are not so much due to a pure interest in her but rather what she’s able to offer him: a fix for his sexual addiction. When his partner Chicken is being slapped by Lady S, Masked Man M instantly becomes infatuated and desperately cries out to be put in his stead. Upon Lady S being tagged out for Vacuum Fat, Masked Man M is immediately disappointed. While he still receives the punishment he desires, it’s not from a person he finds sexually attractive.
Left unsatisfied by that night’s endeavors, Romeo continues to seek out the pleasure (or more aptly, pain) that he craves. On his way to the orphanage, he drives to a vending machine that distributes pornography and purchases a BDSM-themed magazine. The article is eventually discovered by one of the children in the facility; however, it’s quickly replaced by one of the nuns with a wrestling magazine that features Masked Man M on the cover.
The final match between the two wrestlers is a test, set up by Lady S, to understand Masked Man M’s true motivations. As Romeo begins to lose consciousness in the fight, he can’t help but derive pleasure from the pain he’s suffering. He starts to see visions of his mother who, like many of the children’s parents in the orphanage he runs, abandoned him at a young age. In the hallucination, he attempts to run after her but can never catch up as reality repeatedly kicks in. As the children cry for him to get up, Masked Man M is faced with an important decision: to get up and fight for the orphan’s well-being or indulge in his masochism in the hopes of joining his mother.
Eventually, Romeo manages to overcome his desires and face the reality of his situation — his mother will never return. Lady S, a sadist, fails in her goal of establishing dominance over her partner but in the process gains a newfound respect for Romeo, as he did something she didn’t expect him capable of. Consequently, she donates the money to the orphanage as a sign of their mutual understanding.
Despite Kick-Heart being a rather slapstick adventure, it manages to offer some in-depth commentary into the psychological state of those who enter sadomasochistic partnerships. It’s a shame that Production I.G’s Kickstarter was unable to receive enough funding to develop a feature-length film where these characters could be explored in greater depth. Both Masked Man M and Lady S are compelling figures who, while they don’t speak often, manage to remain both visceral and easily identifiable.