The Art of Wrestling: Why Japan?

What wrestling fans could learn from NFL columnists: For my money, the two best NFL writers on the ‘net are IP’s own Nick Pomazak, and NFL dot com’s Gregg Easterbrook. In his latest Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, Easterbrook had this to say:

What Hollywood Could Learn from the NFL: Film types are bemoaning a bad year at the box office. They blame DVDs, Internet piracy, El Nino: Everything but Hollywood itself. Tuesday Morning Quarterback suggests the box-office slump is a rational market response to a string of lousy movies. Major studios now assume that if you take a couple of brand-name stars, put them in a plot that makes no sense, have them read listlessly from a terrible script — then add cleavage and explosions — millions will pay $8 to sit through the result. The governing Hollywood premise is that typical ticket buyers are so incredibly stupid as to lack any ability to tell a good movie from a bad one. Actually, movie patrons are getting more sophisticated about flicks all the time, exactly as Hollywood dumbs down. Should we be surprised that steadily fewer people want to watch? Anyone selling a discretionary item, entertainment and sports among them, must never lose sight of the fact that quality is the essence of the product. Food and clothing are necessities; people don’t have to have movie or sports tickets, so buyers line up only if they get their money’s worth. In an era of 500 channels, the NFL continues to set records for gate attendance and ratings because product quality, namely the games themselves, remains the league’s focus. Product quality seems last on the list of Hollywood’s concerns.

Substitute “WWE” for “Hollywood” in the above paragraph, and you will capture the feelings of a large and increasing number of my colleagues. This is one of the main reasons I’m so passionate when it comes to writing about Japanese wrestling. I love watching great matches, and if the mainstream US promotions aren’t giving me what I want to see then I need to look elsewhere for it. The US indy scene, the Japanese scene, and the Lucha Libre scene are all places we can turn when we’re burned out on or disappointed by the current mainstream wrestling product.

I’m really enjoying going through Golden Boy Tapes‘ Best of Japan 2004 series, in part because I feel it’s giving me the opportunity to spread the word on some matches that may have flown beneath people’s radar. For example, have you heard about the time that Toshiaki Kawada fought some guys from K-Dojo?

Toshiaki Kawada, Ryuji Hijikata & Taichi Ishikari vs. TAKA Michinoku, Hi69, & Psycho (Dec. 28, ’03):

This is a hilariously fun match. If I understand correctly, K-Dojo is TAKA’s pet project. His tag partners are good workers, if a loittle sloppy, and they have a very “Indy” look to them, by which I mean they are unusual looking, strangely built,m and oddly dressed. Kawada’s partners are a former BattlArts guy (Hijikata) and one of All Japan’s latest Jr. Heavyweight Young Lions (Ishikari). For the most part, they avoid flippy stuff and wrestle a kind of Indy version of Strong Style wrestling, mixed with some truly standard chain wrestling. It’s not much different from what you might see at your local Indy show… except that Hijikata kicks like he’s still in BattlArts working Shoot Style, Ishikari sells so well that he makes Hi69 and Psycho look like legitimate killers, and from time to time Toshiaki Kawada steps in and beats the hell out of everyone. One gets the feeling that the K-Dojo guys are rather proud to be getting stiffed by Dangerous K, and who can blame them?

The crowd reacts to TAKA like he’s a truly major star, and I guess that in their eyes he probably is. There is a long segment where Toshiaki and TAKA face off, and it’s clearly meant to be the highlight of the match. This seems to fit the time-honored tradition of the local booker making himself look strong against the visiting big name freelancer. From my point of view it felt slightly wrong, somehow, to see Kawada selling TAKA’s offense so enthusiastically. The question in my mind, for better or worse, was not “Can Taka put Kawada away?” but rather, “Is Michinoku a big enough egomaniac to book himself to go over Toshi?”

In the end, I was satisfied with the answer, and I enjoyed this match more than anything I’ve seen on RAW the last little while.

Calm down now, nobody’s gonna choppy choppy anything…

Current Japanese wrestling is, in a way, similar to current Japanese cinema. It isn’t really possible to favourably compare most modern Japanese movies, like the recent work of Beat Takeshi, to Kurosawa’s great classics. Hell, it’s probably not fair to compare most of Kurosawa’s later works to Seven Samurai or Yojimbo. Those are untouchable classics that redefined what was possible for Japanese film. If, however, I compare any of the better current Japanese movies to their contemporary Hollywood blockbusters, I’ll more often than not find the foreign films far more original, engaging, and stimulating. There are a number of Japanese filmmakers who are still primarily concerned with creating art, while the majority of Hollywood’s film studios are much more concerned with trying to generate profits. There are still a few great directors who somehow manage to create movie magic while working within the studio system but for the most part film as an art form has been relegated to the independent scene in America.

If I compare a puroresu match from 2005, say something from Satoshi Kojima’s championship run, with one of the classic matches from 1990s All Japan, it’s going to come up wanting. Hell, it probably isn’t fair to compare Kawada and Kobashi’s latest matches with what they were producing from 1993 through 1998. They were putting on true five star classics, which set a new standard for what was possible in a wrestling ring. If, however, I compare the better Japanese matches of the past couple of years with the dross being disgorged by the North American Corporate Scene, I generally find that the Japanese matches are far more compelling and exciting to watch. There are still wrestlers and promoters in Japan who treat wrestling as a respected art form, while in corporate USA the in ring action seem to be treated as a lesser part of a larger business plan. There are still a few great wrestlers putting on four star matches while working within the limits of the WWE style. For the most part, however, wrestling as art has been relegated mainly to the indy scene in America.

Next week, God willing, we’ll take a look at more of what Kobashi and Kawada have been up to lately. I’m sorry for missing last week’s column and for cutting this one short. I need to devote a lot of energy and time to my professional life right now, since I’m trying to take care of all my responsibilities before I leave on vacation. Chitose and I are going to Japan in late November. While we’re there, we’re going to try and catch the last show of NOAH’s Winter Navigation ’05 tour, the final night of All Japan’s Real World Tag League tournament, New Japan’s Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium show, and the big Indy Super Show at Korakuen Hall. I’m hoping to have a lot of new column ideas when I come back, and I’m really excited to finally see some puroresu live and in person.

Thanks for reading!

If you want to read more about Japanese cinema, check out Robert’s excellent article on the subject.