An Outsider’s Take On Japanese Pro Wrestling
Recently a friend from the states came to visit me in Japan, and as she is a huge wrestling fanatic, she begged me to take her to some Japanese wrestling events.
Luckily for her, we were able to make it to not one, but two. One by New Japan Pro Wrestling, the major wrestling promotion here in Japan (and the second-biggest wrestling organization in the world behind the WWE), and a local, indie event by Fukumen Mania, a luchadore (Mexican wrestling) style organization.
It was probably the most fun I could have with men in skintight spandex that I’d be willing to talk about on a blog that my mom reads.
Up first was the NJPW event, which was held at Tokyo Korakuen Hall. It’s a small venue that only holds about 2,000 people, and while it looks a bit like a run down hellhole, it is widely considered to be the fighting venue in Japan, with a long and storied history that goes back to the the early 60s. The location is so ubiquitous with pro wrestling in Japan that many fans simply refer to it as “the hall.”
The event was part of NJPW’s “Road to Wrestling Dontaku,” which I assume is their next big pay per view (or whatever the equivalent of a PPV is in Japan), and consisted almost entirely of tag team events. And, speaking as someone who has barely held an interest in wrestling for the better part of 25 years, they were all pretty spectacular.
Now, I know next-to-nothing about pro wrestling, and between that and the language barrier, I didn’t know what storylines were being developed or the histories behind any of the fighters. But I know impressive in-ring technical skill when I see it, and most of the wrestlers at this event had it in spades. I also noticed that NJPW has some of the best damn heels (that’s wrestling parlance for bad guys) that I’ve seen in a long time. In the few times that I’ve caught RAW in the past few years, the heels just seemed like annoying pretty boys or cartoonish monsters. But the villains of NJPW just came off like complete rat bastards.
Funnily enough, most of them are foreigners. And I later discovered that the big heel stable of wrestlers in NJPW is in fact a gaijin (foreigner) only group called Bullet Club, several members of which are probably familiar to western wrestling fans. Scott Hall’s son Cody Hall was present, and his mountainous appearance, decent in-ring ability and sneering presence (not to mention his family connections) pretty much make him a lock to join the WWE someday. Another Bullet Club standout was Kenny Omega, who hammed up his sleek slimy foreigner image wonderfully before delivering some great wrestling action.
But my favorite heels of the night came early in the form of Roppongi Vice, a tag team duo that consists of former WWE Superstar Trent Barreta and Rocky Romero. Their name comes from the Roppongi area of Tokyo, which is well-known for its criminal underground, and they play up that image to the fullest, strutting out like gangsters. Hilariously though, they also play themselves as total cowards, routinely cowering and hiding during the match before showcasing their true abilities and tearing their foes to shreds.
I would be remiss though if I didn’t mention some high quality local talent as well. Tama Tonga worked well as a good monstrous heel. This was in part thanks to his creepy-ass facepaint, but it was largely due to his unique movement, he danced about the ring almost like an insect, creeping and sliding about before striking brutally and quickly. It was downright disconcerting at times.
The main event featured some really stellar talent as well. A five-on-five tag team rumble, it was the only match of the night where I found the faces outperformed the heels almost entirely (although I did appreciate the guy who came out with his own chair as a gimmick). The big man of the face’s group, Hirooki Goto, worked great as an imposing monster of a man, while the pretty boy of the group Kota Ibushi was, um, well, incredibly pretty.
I think my boyfriend was quite the fan.
A lot of my friends who like wrestling prefer watching NJPW over WWE because they say the actual wrestling is of a much higher quality than most of what the WWE is producing these days. I can’t speak to that, but after watching just one, relatively minor, NJPW event, I can’t imagine that the WWE can do much better on a consistent basis. These weren’t just rejects who couldn’t make it in the WWE, but actual legit wrestlers who appeared to me to be at the top of their game.
While I was impressed by the action I saw on Friday night, I was almost disappointed that it wasn’t a mess. Great wrestling sure is a lot of fun to watch, but a trainwreck can be even more entertaining. Thankfully, we had Fukumen Mania to look forward to – which proved to be a fabulous, wonderful, and absolutely bizarre affair that somehow managed to be a complete disaster and masterpiece all rolled into one.
We discovered the Fukumen event by chance, seeing a flyer on a bulletin board in Nakano. I passed over it without a second thought, but my wrestling fanatic friend immediately became infatuated with the idea of seeing low-budget luchadore wrestling in Japan and nearly screamed at me “WE HAVE TO GO TO THIS.”
That itself proved to be slightly difficult, as Fukumen’s website has zero English and even with my Japanese boyfriend’s help we couldn’t find a link to buy tickets. Eventually we called in and they agreed to hold tickets for us without having to pay anything up front. My boyfriend gave them our first names and was about to give my last name but they interrupted and said that wouldn’t be necessary, as we were most likely going to be the only foreigners in attendance.
The event was in Shin-kiba, which, despite being within walking distance to Tokyo Disney, is one of the few places in the greater Tokyo area that reminds me of Ohio – flat, boring and filled with truck depots and warehouse. The match was even held inside an old warehouse that was jammed between two lumberyards. The entire thing reeked of a low-rent clusterfuck.
We were pretty stoked.
While the NJPW event was a jam-packed card with seven stellar events, Fukumenmania was a smaller affair with just three matches. We were slightly bummed at that at first until we released that the three matches pretty much made use of every single wrestler in the company.
And things certainly got off to an…interesting start with a mixed-gender three-on-three tag team event that featured a Canadian superhero; a tiger-masked man with buck teeth; a little old man who moved at a snail’s pace; and a perverted man in a pig mask who set out to grope as many of the woman wrestlers as possible.
The pervert angle got old fast, as his creepy behavior quickly escalated from Peppy Le Pew-style stalking to full on boob-grabbing. While it was at times funny (especially when his own teammates beat him up for being a creeper), the sexual assault vibe of the match was just too heavy for me to ignore.
Thankfully the other wrestlers in the match were worthwhile, especially the old dude. His whole gimmick was that he moved like a tortoise, typically beating on the other fighters with his cane in humorous ways. However, occasionally the pretense would shed and he would fly through the ring like a cheetah, laying waste to his opponents. I’m sure this wasn’t the first time such a angle has been used, but it was new to me and I loved it.
The second match was played more straight than the first, but it was also uneven. While the high-flying spots were usually hit perfectly, much of the match was pretty slow and boring. However, after the show my friend pointed out that this promotion was actually a wrestling school, and that many of these wrestlers were just starting out – which made this match a lot better in hindsight. They may not have been the best wrestlers I saw that weekend, but they were going for it at least, and got more than a couple decent showcase moves in.
The final match, a tag team rumble between the four most obviously talented people of the group, was easily the highlight of the night though. One character’s gimmick was that he was Chinese boxer ala Drunken Master, and his movement through the ring was really unique and impressive, combining what looked like legit martial arts moves with a showy wrestling style that worked well together.
The other wrestlers in the match were more typical luchadores, but they were easily the biggest, strongest and most experienced fighters of the night, and were eager to impress the small crowd who came to see them rumble. Near the tail-end of the fight the brawling exited the ring, with wrestlers getting tossed into chairs and vice versa. The crew working with the wrestlers did a great job of clearing seats right before the wrestlers went into them, my boyfriend excluded, who failed to rise from his seat even as wrestlers were flying over him.
I suspect he was just admiring the view. Not every day he gets a spandex clad crotch two feet from his face.
Even though the overall technical ability on display at the Fukumen event was quite good, the entire thing had a bizarre, slightly off-kilter feeling to it. Instead of belts, the winners of each match won prizes like candy and strawberries; during the intermission they showed a video of a 20 year old Mexican/Japanese luchadore match for some reason; and at the end of the night everyone gave a curtain call and walked off to the theme song to The Neverending Story.
But it was obvious that everyone involved in the promotion was in it for the love of wrestling. After the final match my friend and I posed for a picture with Macho Pump, one of the main event fighters. As my boyfriend talked to him (in Japanese) we found out that he was the person who manned the phones and took our order earlier that week. Not only was he the star wrestler of the promotion, he also sold the tickets personally. With that kind of dedication, it’s obvious that this is the guy’s life, and I admire his tenacity for it.
I just really hope he answers the phone with the mask on.