It is that time of year where most indie promotions set the stage for the big end of the year blow-out shows. One end of the year show is unmatched in its scale, in its history, and in the illustriousness of the promotion to which it is a flagship tradition. “Wrestle Kingdom”, held at the beginning of January, has been called the “Wrestle Mania” for fans of “real wrestling” today. New Japan Pro-Wrestling puts all the titles, all the biggest matches, and all the culminating story-lines into one giant super-card event, held annually to staggeringly vast crowd at the Tokyo Dome.
Back in the day, it was every wrestler’s distant dream to have a headlining match at Wrestle Mania, a “mania-moment” they call it. Now it seems that every pure wrestler’s dream is to have a highlighting moment at the Tokyo Dome. It is the dream to make it in a world-class and historic wrestling promotion that honors substance over style, athletic in-ring ability over gimmick, and the original purpose of the animating contest known as Professional wrestling, over a glitzy, over-produced reality-TV show pantomime of it found in North America.
The moniker phrase imbedded in the New Japan logo is “King of sports”, meaning the king of the purest of sports, combat sports. Since its creation by the wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, New Japan was willing to break new ground, while also honoring the traditional fighting spirit ethos of Japanese fighting and martial arts. New Japan attracted the biggest stars over the years and continues to produce the very best professional wrestling athletes the world over.
Many still view wrestling in the west as a joke, a strange theater/sit-com/violent soap opera, and no doubt, wrestling is a “work” with determined outcomes, story-lines, and larger than life characters. New Japan is this as well, but many do not know that it was also instrumental in the creation and promotion of Mixed-martial arts in Japan and even the world. The Olympic Greco-Roman catch wrestling God himself Karl Gotch was on the very first New Japan card, and professional wrestling in Japan turned into shoot-wrestling/Strong style. Inoki then took the collegate, submission and pure wrestling style from the west, and combined it with his skills in Karate. The Students of Gotch later inspired a whole generation of MMA stars in and outside of Japan. Some of his and Inoki’s students even went on to create the Pancrase promotion, the first shoot wrestling iteration of modern MMA.
New Japan was the very first fighting promotion to feature matches between different styles of fighting, from Sumo, to Boxing, wrestling, Karate and Jujitsu. Inoki even famously fought Muhammed Ali, then Japan’s top Sumo star, as well as the biggest names from the U.S. like Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan. Thus, New Japan earns the title “king of sports” for changing the world of combat sports forever.
Japanese “strong style”, known as Puroresu, is (like anime) a weird hybrid of traditional western and eastern styles. Different in its presentation and psychology from the wrestling typically presented in North America. Strong style is not “sports entertainment”, it is presented as a legitimate sport and relies on traditional wrestling story-lines, where rivalries between heels and faces are based on ability and personality, rather than Gimmicks and drama. The Bushido ethic, the Japanese “Fighting Spirit” is the main drive of strong-style, where wrestlers start out from the grueling dojo training, to then earn a spot on the card by their hard work and the ability to withstand monumental feats of physical and psychological pain.
Even the New Japan Dojo system is run like a traditional martial-arts dojo, where participants start off as “Young-lions”, who are subjected to punishing physical training, and the building of character through hard work. Young Lions do menial tasks for other wrestlers, going back to the Samurai “young-boy” ideal of training. They provide around-ring security for each show, fight on the undercard which usually results in them eating the most pins, and are even stripped of all identity, only being allowed to use a number of limited moves that they must perfect to the letter, and are only allowed to fight in plain black trunks. Then when they graduate, they must go on excursion for a time in one of a number of affiliate or sister-promotions of New Japan, only then can they adopt an identity and unique move-set.
Steeped in tradition and the heritage of a nation, New Japan now finds itself at the cultural and philosophic crossroads that faces much of current Japanese life (or life in any non-western country). Wrestling promotions in Japan have always historically expressed this sense of cultural insecurity, thus most western or “Gajin” wrestlers were booked as the evil foreign heels that invaded the promotion, bringing disrespect and dishonour to the purist sport of Puroresu, or at least that was the stereotypical caricature. One does not have to read Roland Barthes’ “Mythologies” to know that wrestling is a polymorphic artistic and cross-cultural form that has always expressed the politics of the day in a rather dramatic, violent, and over the top fashion. Pro-wrestling may not be a legitimate sport, but as some wrestling fans ironically say, its more real than most sports now-a-days.
Wrestle-kingdom 13, the current year, a once in a lifetime match.
The build-up to this year’s main event at Wrestle-kingdom 13 on January 4th has been promoted as being a war over the driving rival philosophies, and the very heart, soul and future direction of New Japan as a company, embodied in the main event between NJPW veteran Hiroshi Tanahashi, and what many think of as the best wrestler today, the current IWGP (New Japan’s athletic commission) heavyweight champion Kenny Omega. There has yet to be an explicit outline of what this means, so I will attempt to provide one, as well as what I contend is one of, if not the most important wrestling story-line within the last few decades. It is an expression of the eternal culture-war that rages on between the worlds of tradition and modernity, in a very theatrical and combative form. As Evola states in “The Metaphysics of War”:
“The fundamental principle underlying all justifications of war, from the point of view of human personality, is ‘heroism’. War, it is said, offers man the opportunity to awaken the hero who sleeps within him. War breaks the routine of comfortable life; by means of its severe ordeals, it offers a transfiguring knowledge of life, life according to death. The moment the individual succeeds in living as a hero, even if it is the final moment of his earthly life, weighs infinitely more on the scale of values than a protracted existence spent consuming monotonously among the trivialities of cities”.
Wrestling is a drama of heroism, an evolving one that still honors traditions of old, from its first iterations in the freak carnival sideshows, to its various sub-genres today, pro-wrestling is the captivating and emotive drama of modern gladiatorial combat. What does not matter is the “reality” of it, but its sincerity as a narrative form, its blurred line between reality and fiction is what makes it so compelling.
This is what leads us to the current battle for not just the future of New japan, but of professional wrestling as a whole. Let us first examine the role Hiroshi Tanahashi plays as the warrior and absolute face fighting for the traditions that NJPW embodies; Tanahashi is a top wrestler that is referred to as an “ACE” in Japanese pro-wrestling. Every company has an Ace whom serves as the face and frontrunner of the promotion, a veteran who has held most of the titles and has had some of the most iconic rivalries in the company. The Ace is not like the top wrestler in the WWE, like a John Cena, Rock or Roman Reigns, who is hand-picked and promoted as someone with star-power. The Ace is more akin to what is referred to in North American wrestling as the “Locker room leader”, the most tested and seasoned wrestler that all of the young wrestlers look up to, and helps organize the roster of wrestlers, a vet that commands respect, and is the most loyal to the company. The ace is not given that title, but has to earn it through hard work, sacrifice, loyalty and in-ring ability. In Tanahashi’s case, he has won every accolade New Japan offers, multiple IWGP title reigns, a seven-time IWGP heavyweight champion, wrestling MVP of the year for Tokyo sports 4 times, and headlining Wrestle kingdom seven years in a row.
There may be more popular title-holders from time to time, like Kenny Omega, Kazuchike Okada, or Tetsuya Naito in NJPW, but Tanahashi is nicknamed “the Ace of the universe” for a reason. When Tanahashi came to prominence in the late-90s/early 2000s, finally winning the IWGP Heavyweight championship for the first time from his mentor and rival Keiji Mutoh (known in America as “The Great Muta” for his time spent in WCW), New Japan was about to go under. Now the very top Japanese wrestling promotion that has the capacity in some ways to rival the likes of the WWE, back then a series of bad booking and business decisions almost did in the promotion, that is until Tanahashi came along. Many have credited him as being the one who carried New Japan on his back and saved the company from the absolute brink.
As the current CEO of New Japan Harold Meiji stated recently:
“Tanahashi, for example, on the one hand, he is the essence of New Japan. He’s almost Mr. New Japan. I mean, he started with New Japan, he was brought up as Young Lion, he was there during the bad times, he was there during the good times. I mean, he’s been taking a lot of initiatives to help the company as well. Not just inside the ring, of course, as a wrestler, but also outside the ring he did a lot of PR. He went to personally sell tickets during our darker times… he is the epitome, really, of the tradition of New Japan. It’s in his DNA… That’s who he is”.
Tanahashi lives for the traditions of Japanese professional wrestling and is fiercely loyal to New Japan. Tanahashi structures his matches in the traditional strong style emotive form of “fighting spirit”, struggle to overcome the most brutal and challenging opponents through sheer will alone. There is also an emphasis on the traditional Japanese story-telling style of “Kishōtenketsu”, which is structured by four key components: intro, development or build-up, a dramatic twist, and finally a conclusion. What is known as “spots” or “high spots” in wrestling (big power moves, lucha-style aerial attacks, finishing maneuvers, etc.) is used sparingly to add to the dramatic tension that is built up during the match. Tanahashi also believes that wrestling should have a flow, a tension that makes it truly great and meaningful. Every move should have a reason, from a slow beginning using submission moves and catch-wrestling, to the match slowly picking up the pace with more dramatic moves and spots.
Kenny Omega is the opposite of this rigid style of the traditional in-match story structure. Omega comes from a much more western, fan-service orientated style of hybrid wrestling, relying on his natural athletic ability to achieve a staggering barrage of high-impact power moves. The matches are what “modern” wrestling fans (marks) expect: The intensity and speed of a Lucha-Libre match, relying on overtly complex moves, as well as a whole library of different wrestling moves instead of relying on a few choice ones. Kenny Almost solely relies on these flashy moves and does not possess a variety of submission maneuvers and holds like a traditional wrestler. He does not even have the character or personality of a typical Japanese wrestler. His matches look more like exhibitions of athleticism then telling a story, being fast-paced and energetic from bell to bell.
In fact, Kenny’s defining characteristic as a wrestler (despite vague nods to video game characters and other nerdgeoisie cultural references) is that he is the “best bout machine”, the one whom has the ability to produce great matches every single time he steps into the ring. As Tanahashi sardonically noted in an interview, he admires Kenny’s ability, but hates his style, stating that he is “inelegant” as a wrestler, and that his matches have “no story to them”, no purpose or build-up, that “the only things that matter in his matches are the last five minutes, and the last five moves”. Kenny quickly responded to this, stating that Tanahashi is a dinosaur, an “old F**ker that belongs in the WWE”, who’s wrestling style was good for the past, but not really useful in the current year. This all sets the stage for their clash at Wrestle Kingdom 13. Kenny’s recent catch phrase on all his merchandise is to “change the world”, and what does that exactly mean in the abstract? Some would say it means finally globalizing what is unique to Japanese wrestling, obliterating the old attitudes of what wrestling should be, for a postmodern free-for-all of styles and narrative-structures.
Global vs. Local.
It is not just their wrestling styles alone that make the match between Omega and Tanahashi a clash of worldviews, but also their fundamental positions as wrestlers, and beliefs about wrestling itself.
While Tanahashi is a product of New Japan, and is its most iconic current star, he is wedded to the regional, the Japanese wrestling-ethos, qualities that Omega has stated will only hinder New Japan in archiving a global audience. Omega is the opposite, not being tied to a school or Dojo, for the first few years of his career, Kenny relied on his gymnastic athleticism, and was not even formally trained till much later, going through a string of wrestling schools. He is a world-traveller along with his faction known as “the Elite”, a group of free-lance wrestlers formerly associated with the top heel group in Japan “the Bullet Club”. Bullet club since its inception was the invading force of western “Gaijin” wrestlers in New Japan, who’s ranks even included current WWE stars like AJ Styles.
Nomadic and flashy in their approach to wrestling, business men first and foremost, with a fanbase of jaded ex-WWE fans who want an edgier product, The Elite is above any single promotion, and Kenny is at the helm . The fans of the elite are in it for them, and some would say largely ignore the whole of the product New Japan offers. Kenny very much is a rootless cosmopolitan in his attitudes towards pro-wrestling, going from promotion to promotion, and despite learning Japanese and moving to Japan from Canada, there is still a sense that he is the “other” that wishes to turn New Japan into a more western-friendly product . What Tanahashi views as the traditional role of a champion, of an Ace, is to be present no matter what, fighting on both the larger and smaller yearly tours, fighting through injuries, being called upon to give it your all, no matter how little or big the payoff is. Kenny as the current champion has been largely absent from most smaller tours, foregoing a grueling Japanese touring schedule to make fan appearances, video game conventions, and one-off shows elsewhere in other continents of the world. The Japanese fanbase and tours are merely a means to an end, a stage like any other.
One must also grasp the historic significance of this match as well. For most of New Japan’s booming and transitory years, the Heisei period, starting in 1989, has been the imperial reign under Emperor Akihito. Chris Charlton, the writer, wrestling historian and color commentator for New Japan, comments upon the significance of this year’s headline match during the live commentary for the last official show of 2018 on December 15th, entitled “road to Wrestle Kingdom 13”; Tanahashi has been the premier Heisei period wrestler, taking inspiration from the past “Shōwa” period style of classic wrestling in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and making it more palatable to modern audiences. Now that in 2019 it has been announced that the Heisei period is coming to an end, New Japan serendipitously finds itself at the same cross-roads as the nation, grappling with the considerations of tradition in a changing world that is hostile to such localist considerations.
Charlton further comments that to Tanahashi, wrestling is a theological matter, a pursuit of a higher, almost spiritual end in combat. And its holy grail is the IWGP Heavyweight championship, for it symbolizes the sacrifice, the desire, the absolute goal of every single wrestler in the world and has been held by the Gods of pro-wrestling, especially Tanahashi’s God Antonio Inoki. To Omega, being the IWGP heavyweight champion is merely a utilitarian means to an end, a symbol not of spiritual talismanic power, but a symbol of the profane, one of change, a tool of legitimacy for Omega to inflict his multicultural (a Canadian at heart) westernization of the New Japan soul. Everything about Omega teems with this desire to break Japanese wrestling of its old hang-ups, even when he was a Heel in the Bullet club, the way they achieved heat was very North American relative to standard Japanese heel tactics. A lot of run-ins, interference, use of weapons, etc (Even Omega’s ambiguous and sexually liberal, relationship with fellow “golden lovers” tag partner Kota Ibushi breaks the mold in terms of the traditionally hyper-masculine character of Japanese combat sports).
Whomever wins at the Tokyo Dome this year, what shines through is the power of Professional wrestling to transcend the boundaries of sport, entertainment, theater, and morality-play. The rivalry between Tanahashi and Omega very much is a metaphor for what we are all struggling with in modernity, shall we move fourth with a globalized and hyper-real morphological groundlessness, or shall we cling on with all our might to traditions at once gave whole populations meaning. Japan is a unique situation, since it has been transformed by the west, by hyper late-capitalism, yet still is adamant about its national character rooted in some fading semblance of its traditional way of life. Pro-wrestling may be choreographed or “fake”, but its drama feels more real than anything else, certainly more real than any modern culture industry production or mass media event of the day.
 Which can be found on New Japan world, their international streaming and archive site, under the English commentary option.