Section 1- Trip background
Living at home with the parents has its ups and downs, but one thing for sure: it’s wallet-friendly. Since graduating college in May ’03 I’ve managed to pay off the vast bulk of my school loans and even put a couple thousand into long-term investment. At some point it occurred to me that I could actually put this money to a little irresponsible use, and combined with two college buddies living in Japan I decided that my summer vacation would be on the other side of the world.
Though the exact flight schedule wasn’t nailed down until June, and the G-1 dates weren’t set until May, I was able to guess that the final nights of the tournament would be on the 13th and 14th based on how the tournament is usually scheduled. I’d considered going to the NOAH Dome show, but said friends were unavailable at that time, so the G-1 it was. After arriving in Osaka on the 7th and going to several locations, I went to Tokyo on the 12th.
A word about Tokyo: it’s big. It’s beyond big. On Tuesday I flew over Chicago and it seemed positively tiny. New York City, though its skyscrapers are more sky-scraping, is only a fraction as sprawlingly massive as Tokyo. How it manages to stay clean with virtually no public trash cans is beyond me. Another word about Tokyo: it’s new. Why? Well, it’s hard not to be when every major structure was razed in 1945 and the economy was in shambles for another decade. The closest North American city in regard to newness is Toronto. Lots of pretty glass.
Section 2- Ryogoku Kokugikan
‘Ryogoku’ is a neighborhood in Tokyo, as are ‘Korakuen’, ‘Yoyogi’ and ‘Ariake’. These are the equivalent of NYC neighborhoods like SoHo, East Village or Flatbrush, and have the types of differing makeups that make a megacity diverse. Ryogoku isn’t an area I explored much because Sumo Hall (the Kokugikan) is the first thing you see outside of the train station. Next door is the Tokyo Edo Museum, which covers the history of Tokyo. If you ever go to a show at Sumo Hall, I’d recommend checking out the museum in the afternoon.
Sumo Hall is on the small side, and from what I could tell there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. My seats were on the 6th and 8th row (respectively) of the publicly sold tickets, and for under $100 US the view was great. $100 at Wrestlemania 18 put me what felt like half a mile away. Adorning the upper walls were pictures of past sumo champions, and several sumos themselves were in attendance. After entering there is a hallway where New Japan hawked its expensive wares ($30-40 for any shirt, $50+ for a DVD) and where I got to say hello to legendary wrestler Kengo Kimura.
Here’s what separates Sumo Hall from just about every other venue on earth: the lower area of permanent seats aren’t seats, but rather sections of floor designed for four people to sit. That can get very uncomfortable after a few hours, so the cheap seats in the upper section might actually be the best option. Otherwise, see if you can bring a small cushion with you.
Section 3- Night 1
After being tricked by a security guard into leaving my digital camera at the train station, I discovered that I was almost the only one there without. As it turns out the lighting wasn’t very good for pictures, but still, the principle is what counts. Thanks to the low attendance my friend Alex and I were able to have a ‘four person’ section to ourselves most of the night, and the air conditioning kept it very comfortable despite the blazing heat outside. Upon entering the arena I was greeted by the sounds of Nightwish, a metal band used regularly by New Japan, playing over the PA. Seeing that Nightwish is one of my favorite bands ever, that started the evening off well.
The crowd was quiet for most of the show. Well, to be precise, they were quiet for a Japanese crowd. Somehow that isn’t as unsettling as a ‘dead’ crowd in the US, in part because that tends to lead to lots of smartass comments from the peanut gallery. I can’t tell you how nice it is to be at a show and not have lots of cynical, hostile fans there to try and get attention. This goes double for those who go to ROH shows and want to be the smartest mark in the room. Ahem. Thankfully it takes very little Japanese to participate in the show. Know the names of the wrestlers, know how to pronounce them in a ‘Japanese’ way, and know the word ‘ganbare’ (which means ‘do your best’).
The show began with an introduction of the G-1 participants, which usually happens on the first night only (to my knowledge). From the get-go it was clear how much more popular Chono was than the rest. After that came a traditional young lion match in the form of a tag, which sowed the seeds of the current Hirooki Goto vs Akiya Anzawa feud. Opening G-1 match was Yoshie beating Tatsutoshi Goto using the power of his girth, which drew some polite laughter as Goto was unable to use his trademark backdrop suplex. Oddly enough he was just about the only person on the card for either show who couldn’t hit that suplex.
Minoru Suzuki versus Kendo Kashin could have been a disaster. Neither of them is a conventional Japanese wrestler, and combined with their unfamiliarity they might have stunk up the joint. Instead they went for a lighthearted comedy match that worked well, including much bullying of referee Black Cat. That it ended in a countout was just fine because it was a throwaway match to begin with, and the crowd cared about the funny schtick rather than the competition. After them came Nakanishi versus Tanahashi, which also exceeded my expectations by sticking closely to a powerhouse-versus-underdog theme. Tanahashi & Nakamura vs Nakanishi & Norton earlier in the year was excellent for the same reason. Ladies screamed for Tanahashi and the crowd even popped for Nakanishi’s bearhug and iron claw. Nakanishi took third place with his win.
Last year, Kawada beat Nishimura in a Triple Crown match. This year, Kawada beat Nishimura to advance in the tournament. While I didn’t see the former, the latter was perfectly fine pro wrestling aside from Kawada once again no-selling leg work. After two stretch plums failed to put Mr. Muga away, Kawada stretched Nishimura to an absolutely obscene degree and got the duke. I can’t wait to see this on tape to determine if it was as unholy as it seemed live. Chono versus Fujinami was a flat follow-up with an abrupt finish. Fujinami has yet to impress me in his comeback run.
Tenzan versus Nagata was a by-the-books Japanese heavyweight ‘big match’. Lots of strikes, some of which were of the stiff variety. Lots of big moves and nearfalls at the end, leading to a clean win for Nagata. While not as high-end as several of Tenzan’s past G-1 battles, it also lacked the mindless overkill that defined several of his recent IWGP matches. One thing that stood out greatly to me is how much less crowd support Tenzan had than in previous years, similar to what happened to Nagata after winning the 2001 tournament and getting crushed in a shootfight a few months later.
Finally came the main event of Fujita against Nakamura, which failed to draw the crowd and the crowd heat New Japan expected. Fujita’s ability to take huge bumps at his size was quite impressive in person, but it doesn’t excuse his severe limitations and in the ring he’s essentially a poor man’s Takayama. Meanwhile, Nakamura’s lack of good strikes and mid-range offense continues to be his downfall as both are vital to a young Japanese heavyweight in a semi-underdog role. The decision to keep Fujita’s matches short is a good one, because making the matches into a relative sprint allows him to maintain the energy level with a few trademark spots and his big bumping. Fujita won and as always the crowd deflated from it.
Simply being at a Japanese wrestling show in Sumo Hall made night one worth it. The wrestling overall was just fine and nothing sucked (which applies to every show I went to).
Section 4- Night 2
The full house meant three things: physical heat, crowd (noise) heat, and pain from sitting relatively still for long periods of time. The middle of those three went a long way to negating the effects the other two.
H. Goto versus Anzawa was a great opener. Anzawa received lots of support and they had a very intense match. Young Lions matches can be especially dull at times, but also can excel thanks to earnest passion and a lack of ego-driven bad selling. It helps that they smacked each other in the face a lot. Then came Lizmark Jr, a WCW undercarder turned lucha heavy-hitter, against veteran Takashi Iizuka. This was embarassing at times due to some bad execution and a blown suicida from Lizmark, who won with a tilt-a-whirl side slam. The next match was also mediocre, as mystery white heavyweight Hangman faced Hiro Saito. For all of Saito’s paunchy sentons there was no overcoming the, um, brute force of Hangman. I still don’t know the deal there, and Hangman hasn’t been heard from since.
Semi-final action kicked off with Chono against Nakamura. Nakamura’s brief chants would get swamped by the Chono lovers, and Chono’s win was viewed as a huge upset due to the prevailing opinion (which I shared) that Nakamura was a lock to win the tournament. Thus it got a massive reaction, the likes of which were only matched by the main event. Kawada versus Fujita was a war like I expected, with Kawada getting a vastly better reception than the night before as he tried to withstand Fujita’s attacks. There was a ‘Go to Sleep’ chant (literally) when Kawada locked in a front choke sleeper, but Fujita survived and went on to win. For several minutes I was able to lose myself in rooting for Kawada, and really, the best times in wrestling come from just marking out.
The longest match of the G-1 programs was an 8-man juniors tag. Liger and his heel Control Terrorism Unit (CTU) compatriots were only able to draw laughs rather than real heat. Come on, are YOU going to boo Liger? Especially after clapping along to his theme song. It dragged a lot and finished when Tiger Mask’s ugly one-night-only mask was ripped off, leaving him open to a cradle. He’s better off without that mask says I. Thankfully I would get to see better outings for all those involved a few days later.
Nishimura & T. Goto versus Suzuki & Yano was another schtick-heavy match that was okay for what it was. Minoru Suzuki’s entrance music got a rather big reaction when much of the crowd sung along to its ending lyric/title, ‘Kaze Ni Nare’. More on that in the next column. A 6-man heavyweight tag was the semi-final of the night, and it was a rather drab one. Nagata pinned Yoshie with his backdrop suplex hold, and Yoshie took it like a man. One of the fun parts of the evening was joining in as the crowd whistled/hissed in anticipation of Tenzan’s trademark Mongolian chops. Why the noise? I’m not sure. But it’s neat. And then came the main event.
‘Chono’ calls began during the last intermission. Then when his music hit for the second time of the night it was clear just how much heat the G-1 final would have: as much as Sumo Hall could produce. Fujita got the heel heat he had been seeking for so long, and every bit of Chono’s offense drew massive applause. Another ‘Go to Sleep’ chant happened here, only louder, and Chono’s win generated a spine-tinglingly monster pop. Afterwards Chono dedicated the win to Hashimoto, and Hashimoto’s theme was played as the crowd chanted his name. Great moment, and it was so much better with Chono doing it than anyone else on the card. Though the main event was short and simplistic compared to recent tournament finals, it was still quite an experience.
Next Week: A report on the other three shows I saw