Very Big Japan: BJW @ Korakuen Hall, 6/30/2014
Compared to other promotions, Big Japan Pro-Wrestling’s fans are, for the most part, a more dedicated and damaged bunch. That's a good thing. That's definitely a good thing.
BJW live events tend to have this quaint feel to them, a very Japanesey grassroots feel. Before the show and during the intermission the BJW young-boys and a handful of wrestlers will usually come out and sell whacky pieces of merchandise, like flip-flops and small bottles of salt. Regardless of how many people end up going to the show—I believe there were just over 800 in attendance at this one—the Big Japan fans still make tons of noise. Fantastic diehard crowd on hand at Korakuen this evening.
The show opened with the owner of the company, Eiji Tosaka, coming to the ring to welcome everyone to the show, said a few kind words of thanks to the audience and mentioned that the 15 year anniversary of the promotion is coming up in August. Good for them. He also introduced Abdullah Kobayashi, a large, glass-eating maniac hasn’t wrestled in over a year. Kobayashi looked extra chubby and jovial tonight and told the crowd he’d be back to the ring soon. The owner asked him why his pants were hiked up so high and he claimed ‘It’s butcher-style.’
First match: Masaya Takahashi & Takayuki Ueki vs. The Brahman Brothers (Shu and Kei)
High energy comedy-violence match to start the night. The Brahmans look like caricatures from an old ukiyo-e painting, with chonmage hair and faux fur garb draped over their shoulders. Whacky samurai period piece characters running around acting like Gallagher if he was in ECW back in the mid 1990s. Less watermelons tonight, though, unfortunately. Or fortunately. If you like Gallagher. Hope you don't.
The Brahmans stormed out into the crowd and spat water at everyone and abused the referee outside the ring from the apron. They wandered around ringside threatening to pop balloons in random audience members' faces, much to their delight. Masaya Takahashi and Takayuki Ueki enter from the other side and receive a warm response, especially when Ueki hits the ring. Apparently Ueki is an ex-cop and has a police shield on the back of his cheap forest green singlet. He really dialed up the hyper-enthusastic good guy gimmick tonight, and it worked. It was hilarious. Lots of campy saluting and nonplussed looks from his partner.
Shu & Kei ambushed their opponents outside the ring and started brawling into the crowd. One of the Brahmans stole a crowd member's fresh bag of McDonald's and slammed it over Takahashi's face. With quarter-pounder and fries scattered about the first few rows, one of the Brahmans thought it'd be a good idea to take some burger shrapnel—the buns, particularlyand smushed them together onto Takahashi's cheeks. BJW Special Menu Set with a side of Chubby, Scarred Wrestler.
After stealing and wasting a few of the audience members' beers, the Brahmans eventually moved the match into the ring. Lots of weapons use, like a road sign, an empty metal suitcase, a bowling ball. A handful of pop-the-balloon-in-your-face spots. Oh, and Ueki has an abnormally hairy chest, so they did a spot where they ripped his bear-hairs out as he slumped in the corner. Good stuff.
The highlight of this match was toward the end of the match. Ueki started to mount a comeback, ended up on the top rope and screamed 'WAIT!' He demanded Takahashi pass him a small black bag. The entire building stared, intrigued. Even the Brahmans. Ueki took his time and pulled out the special weapon... a gun! Yes, Ueki pulled a toy pistol out on the Brahmans and started screaming 'FREEZE!' from the top rope. Anyone who came near him got the cop treatment, even Takahashi. After that bit of zany entertainment, the Brahmans quickly caught Ueki on a slip-up and Shu hit the Zombie King pildedriver for the win in 10:18. My face hurt from laughter afterwards. Regardless of whether or not you care for silly comedy matches, you have to appreciate the wrestler's seamless and clear storytelling. No announcers necessary; these types of matches translate no matter what country they take place in. Great way to start the night.
Second match: MEN’S Teioh & Atsushi Maruyama vs. Speed of Sounds (Tsutomu Osugi & Hercules Senga)
MEN'S Teioh is so grizzled and haggard looking these days, it's great. He's finally becoming what he's always wanted to be, I think: An American territory wrestler from the mid '70s. He currently sports a thin mustache, a short business haircut, and a paunch. He might as well smoke while he wrestles. Tonight he teamed with Atsushi Maruyama, formerly Tigers Mask from Osaka Pro Wrestling. Maruyama's style is very modern, a hybrid 'kicky' shoot wrestling (I'm not saying 'MMA') that's common among lots of wrestlers in Japan with some lucha libre peppered in. He basically wrestles like a Tiger Mask. Tsutomu Osugi and Herclues Senga are fancylads who wear pastel green and yellow trunks, have stylish haircuts and do lots of dropkicks. They developed their style with Toryumon Mexico and Michinoku Pro, so they're high energy flippy-flyer dudes, which means one thing for this particular match: Maruyama and Speed of Sounds are doing the athletic in-ring work tonight while MEN'S Teioh handles the primary storytelling. And it worked.
The match started with Osugi calling out Teioh, insisting he start the match. Teioh dismissed him with a couple of old-man hand waves and didn't get in the ring. Lots of giggles from the crowd. Maruyama started the match off for his team and began blasting Osugi with high kicks. High energy pace for the first minute or so. Teioh entered as soon as his opponent was softened up and started laying into him 1970s style. Couple of elbows, a textbook bodyslam, a hanging vertical suplex. What a hoss.
After a bit of back and forth action, the illegal competitors, Maruyama and Osugi, got into it on the red corner apron. While the referee was distracted, Hercules whipped off his pastel trunks and threw them at MEN’s Teioh. Ref turns around, Hercules claims Teioh ripped his greeny-weeny tights off, ref DQs Teioh and Maruyama. This exchange was painfully unnatural, however I appreciated the peculiarity of it all, but christ, it was awkward. A fun match to watch live and a proper cool-down after the antics of the opening bout. And yeah, MEN’s Teioh.
Third match: Kohei Sato (ZERO-1) & Hideyoshi Kamitani vs. Ryuchi Kawakami & Masato Inaba
Next on the bill is a more serious, more heated heavyweight tag match with a rather eclectic mix of wrestlers. Kohei Sato, the current ZERO-1 heavyweight champion, is a very scary looking man. He's scary in an authentic way. He constantly has this expression on his face that I reads as "Yeah, I've been in lots of real fights." The way he's built leads me to believe the only exercise he gets is in the ring, as if he hates exercise that involves iron or electronics. He constantly has this grimy look on his face, this genuine combination of smugness and apathy. All that with a really '80s looking dragon tattoo, so yeah. He has That Look.
His partner, on the other hand, has none of these qualities. And that's fine! Hideyoshi Kamitani has a perpetual young-boy babyface thing going for him. He’s covered in baby fat—though his legs are swelling to the size of tree-trunks—and has the face of a 12-year-old. He’s absurdly passionate; he communicates this naive fighting spirit that most people in the audience seemed to eat up. Plus, in the few matches I’ve seen him in, he gets his ass kicked a lot. BJW’s whipping boy, right here.
He started the match against Masato Inaba, one half of the super-cool Heisei Yakuza Duo (we'll see the other half of the team, Kankuro Hoshino, later on the card). Inaba would have been a perfect fit in the mid-1980s NWA era. He's a grizzled brawler who can also work that mat and make it look like he's been at it for years. A big, malleable power guy who can adapt to the crowd instantly. Korakuen Hall seemed split on who to cheer for tonight--it sounded like they appreciated everyone pretty equally. Inaba started the match as heel only by default, simply because Kamitani is a chubby little babyface who hasn't grown into his bright purple trunks yet.
Inaba gained the upper hand on Kamitani (of course) after a few minutes of solid matwork. He dragged Kamitani to his team’s corner and tagged in Ryuichi Kawakami, a young, stocky 5’11’’ fellow who reminded me of a young Masato Tanaka, in terms of looks and style, though Tanaka never had a quasi-Hare Krishna haircut like Kawakami’s. Despite his questionable fashion sense, Kawkami is an entertaining power wrestler with charisma and was rather over with the Korakuen crowd tonight. He abused the boyish Kamitani for a bit until Kamitani got a few licks in and was able to tag in Sato to even things out. Lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ for the ZERO-1 Heavyweight Champion as he entered the ring. Kawakami and Sato immediately got into each other’s faces, had what seemed to be some salty words with each other. Interesting little subtext here between these two and it was a great way to heat up the crowd. The two quickly got into a chopfest, though the 6’4’’ Sato had no problem putting Kawakami down on the mat, softened up for some sickening low-kicks and other general forms of shoot wrestling torture. The smack of Sato’s long, tree trunk legs sounded like he was kicking a large mound of fresh butcher’s meat. There’s something really human about that sounds, something that intrigues you and makes you pay attention. This translates clearly in a live setting. To me, it was most notable during this match, though I did experience this feeling in other brutal bouts throughout the night. If you’ve been to a live wrestling event before you’ve had this feeling, I’m sure. You’ve heard that sick thud of someone really laying into someone else with a kick or a chop or a slap or an elbow. That very real sound. That sound that makes us pay attention, that makes us keep watching.
There was a great back and forth to this match, but considering the competitors in the match, you kind of knew the kid Kamitani was going down. Hot end to this relatively short match, with Inaba desperately holding onto Sato on the ring apron while Kawakami hit the Scarlett Flowsion on Kamitani for the pin in 11:05. Good stuff.
Fourth match: Ikkitosen ~Strong Climb~ B Block Match: Manabu Soya vs. Kazuki Hashimoto
So from what I could tell, the Ikkitosen Strong Climb is a looser, more spread out version of something like New Japan’s G-1 Climax round-robin point style tournament. There are two groups, or ‘blocks,’ of wrestlers who compete against each other over a specific time period and score points by winning matches. This year’s BJW Strong Climb is from May 17th to July 26th, so tonight was the midway point. There were three Strong Climb matches on tonight’s card, the first being this bout between Manabu Soya and Kazuki Hashimoto.
I thought it was interesting that the first singles match of the night was almost 45 minutes into the program. The first three matches were really high energy, even chaotic at times, so I could sense the crowd wanted to buy in a bit more to this mid-card middleweight match. Nice programming move on the part of whoever is in charge of the book at BJW.
Manabu Soya likes to wear fur. He stormed out first with his faux bearskin robe and very furry boots, and neon pink Saved By The Bell-looking trunks that had the word ‘WILD’ written across his ass. People loved chanting ‘WILD-O’ at him during his match. He looked like Sonny ‘The Barbarian’ Siaki, just more, uh… fabulous? Soya is another young, stocky wrestler with a very North American approach to both his aesthetic style and in-ring wrestling style. In addition to his Fabulous Sonny Siaki look, he wrestles like a guy you’d see on WWF’s Action Zone in the mid-‘90s, maybe jobbing to Flash Funk or something. This isn’t to be interpreted as negative, though. Compared to a lot of other guys on the card, including his opponent, Kazuki Hashimoto, he is much more ‘traditional’ or American when he wrestles. No shoot kicks, no fancy catch submissions, just good old fashioned neckbreakers and powerslams, plus a picture-perfect Fisherman’s Buster towards the end of the match.
Kazuki Hashimoto is a chubby, modern shooty type of wrestler, who like lots of younger Japanese (and a handful of American) wrestlers these days, comes off as a discount version of Koji Kanemoto in the late ‘90s. Again, I’m not saying that to knock him, but that’s just how it comes off to a slightly-more-than-casual fan of puroresu like myself. Soya grabbed the win in 10:43 with a Wild Bomber lariat in a well-paced and well-placed match.
10 minute intermission to set up nailboards and fluorescent lightbulbs.
Fifth match: 6 Man Tag Death Match: Ryuji Ito, Jaki Numazawa & Masashi Takeda vs. Isami Kodaka, Yuko Miyamoto & Kankuro Hoshino
Death matches are made for live events. They’re not meant for television, really. They brutality and violence translates, for the most part. But you have to be there. It’s cliche to say, I know, but it’s the absolute truth. When you’re there it makes sense. The storytelling to these types of matches are guided by everything that’s happening in that building in those moments. They look wild when you’re watching a death match on video, especially a tag bout. The internal logic of the matches are sometimes hard to follow when the match is subdivided into three sub-battles, like the majority of this match was. One story in the ring, one just outside the ring, one in the far bleachers. This is organized chaos, something that is difficult to pull off in other mediums. Circus performances might come close, with a few things happening in quick succession or all at once, but even those are more rehearsed and controlled. The balance between set story and improvised story are so blurred in a Japanese ‘garbage’ match, especially a six-man tag match where there’s simply more going on.
The ‘heels’ came out first—Ryuji Ito, scarred up lightube master; ‘Black Angel’ Jaki Numazawa, a portly, frightening man wearing sloppily applied evil clown makeup, a walking horror comic book; and Masashi Takeda, a relatively normal athletic person, aside from the fact that his upper body resembled an oversized textured atlas you’d buy at Brookstone. I’m using the word ‘heels’ very loosely and putting it in quotes because they’re technically functioning as the bad guys, as the meaner guys, but it was difficult for the crowd to not cheer the insane things they did to their bodies in the name of live entertainment. That and the fact that Yuko Miyamoto seemed like primary babyface in the match and was on the other team. The babyfaces, lead by the handsome-with-scars Miyamoto came out of the top of the bleachers on the far side of the arena, posed a bit, heated the crowd up, then were ambushed by Ito and company. Chaos ensued. The two of members of Miyamoto’s team tonight were Kankuro Hoshino, the other half of the fun-loving sadist tag team the Heisei Yakuza Duo (Masato Inaba appeared in the less bloody third match this evening) and Isami Kodaka, a naive looking rocker dude with an apparent proclivity for getting hit with foreign objects. Another grown man with outrageous and morbid looking scars on his body.
In Japan, its common for wrestlers to move freely and violently throughout the crowd, throwing chairs and rubbish and audience members as they plow their way to their opponent. This match started in the dark upper bleachers and moved all over the place. People seemed to get so excited when threatened with peripheral violence. When you have a crowd filled with relatively well-adjusted people who more often than not work very low-impact salary jobs in Tokyo metro area, they want this. Escape. Disregard for the flesh and escape. And blood. But it’s not hedonistic, really. It’s savage but it’s not indulgent. Most people ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and scream and laugh. They laugh their asses off. It’s just so outrageous at times. It’s surreal and absurd and exhilarating. And fun. It’s really fun. I swear it.
The in-ring action started shortly after the scattered bleacher bedlam. The larger Black Angel’ Jaki Numazawa took a few of the fluorescent tubes hanging from the ring ropes and started smashing them over Isami Kodaka’s back, though not in a vicious way. It was comedic, esoterically speaking. It almost looked as though Numazawa was bored, a lightube in each hand, gingerly swinging the fixtures over Kodaka’s head and back. The sound of the tubes breaking are violent and exaggerated, an easy way to get us to react.
There was a point in the match Masashi Takeda stood on the apron, his back a bloody, sweaty, mess. From where I was sitting you could see tiny pieces of Korakuen Hall shrapnel stuck in the fresh cuts of his back. He seemed phased, but not to a point where he seemed worried about it.
The hot spots in this match were usually when two wrestlers would battle back and forth near the gigantic nailboard, teasing bodyslams and side-Russian legsweeps to their opponents on top. There were two big spots where this happened during the match: once when Ito first bodyslammed Kodaka (the match whipping boy) onto the board of nails as safely as he could. It looked great, despite, you know, being slammed on a comedically large board of eight-inch nails. The final spot was almost disturbing, with Takeda executing a very high angle ‘U-Crash’ uranage on Hoshino. The air Hoshino got, the way he landed. Christ. Only a professional could make something look like that, so perfectly executed. Another Reverse U-Crash from Takeda to Hoshino onto the remaining lightbulbs. Takeda, Ito and Numazawa pick up the win after an appropriately exhausting 15:32. Each of the victorious maniacs took bumps onto the nailboards after their match just because.
Sixth match: Ikkitosen ~Strong Climb~ A Block League Match: Shinya Ishikawa vs. Shuji Ishikawa
BJW’s World Strong Champion Shinya Ishikawa comes out first. A popular guy and apparently the face of the company. WWE has conditioned me well, evidently. Nothing frilly about Shinya aside from his carefully styled and relaxed hair; he’s a somewhat forgettable strong style heavyweight type, someone Atonio Inoki would have loved in the mid-‘90s. I don’t mean to sound dismissive, and I know he’s talented, it’s just… I don’t know. He’s just there. (Update: He was much more animated and interesting at the recent 7/26 Korakuen Hall show. Maybe it’s because there was a bigger crowd that night.) He’s moderately charismatic but it seems like an affected charisma. But what do I know? Either way, tonight he faced the massive Shuji Ishikawa. They’re not related, as far as I know. Shuji is 6’4’’ or so, his head the size of a baby watermelon. This was a slower power match, as it had to be. Almost the total opposite of the six-man death match in terms of pace, action, and storytelling. As I mentioned, Shinya is moderately charismatic, and as the match went on, and as he was pounded on by the much larger Shuji, he turned up his presence in the ring. The crowd was behind him and by the end of the match was hot. There was an almost-disturbing headbutt contest before the match’s end, with Shuji’s watermelon head getting the best of Shinya’s melodic metalcore haircut domepiece. Shuji grabs the win over the champion in 14:18 with a Splash Mountain power bomb.
Seventh match: Ikkitosen ~strong climb~ B Block League Match: Daisuke Sekimoto vs. Shinbou
Last match of the night. Sekimoto and Shinobu had a match at around the same time last year and it more or less followed the same design and pace this time around. Without knowing these two had a match last summer, the story between the two is still clear: Sekimoto is a more neutral Goliath, Shinobu is an androgynous David. The story is uncomplicated and human; massive and seasoned monster veteran versus epicene young athlete in pink tights.
Daisuke Sekimoto is meta-human. His body is over-developed. Not sliced up like a bodybuilder, though. It’s as though his body will continue to grow out. He is a barrel with facial hair. He and Thanos have the same build. In some ways, Sekimoto is a throwback to the mid-to-late 1990s New Japan Pro-Wrestling style of power wrestler, like Kensuke Sasaki or Manabu Nakanishi. The main difference between those two and Sekimoto are that it seems like Sekimoto can adapt to a variety of wrestler’s styles and make even smaller athletes like Shinbou look credible and fantastic.
Where Sekimoto’s style is representative of a large part of the puroresu heavyweight lineage, Shinobu embodies the ‘Rise of The Junior’ quasi-movement of the mid-90s. He is of the same mind and style of the more colorful independent wrestling scene that’s flourished in Japan since the slow decline and disintegration of major promotions since 2000. I hate to use the word ‘typical’ for Shinobu, but in the year 2014 his style is rather standard for a junior heavyweight pro-wrestler. This match featured a bit of Shinobu’s flawless flying—including an immaculate and graceful Asai moonsault—mixed with a bit of quasi-kickboxing and pseudo-shoot wrestling. Two different styles that both represent the evolution and high quality of Japanese professional wrestling.
Although the story for this match was clearly ‘Big Guy Taking On Small Guy,’ there wasn’t ever a time during the bout when I, as a crowd-member, completely doubted Shinbou’s chances to win. The size difference between the two was the default exposition; the fact that Shinobu was hanging in there with Sekimoto both on the mat and during their numerous chop-and-elbow exchanges, that was the story’s development. Shinobu acted as the aggressor on the mat during much of the early part of the match, with Sekimoto’s ridiculous strength comically defending and breaking whatever Shinobu tried to execute. The flow of this match seemed to follow that dynamic, with Shinobu on the offensive quite a lot, and Sekimoto using brute force as his defense. Towards the middle of the match, Sekimoto began to dominate, particularly when he slapped on a proper STF, which Shinobu eventually countered with his own tightly gripped version of the same maneuver.
Just over ten minutes into the match, more back and forth. Even and somehow believable competition. The crowd slowly but surely began losing their heads. There was a superfan in the standing room area above where I was sitting, toward the South side of Korakuen Hall, who sounded like he was having a nervous breakdown. He was so torn between who to root for. He led the majority of both the ‘SHI-NO-BU!’ and ‘SEK-I-MOTO!’ chants, constantly flip-flopping between the two wrestlers. He’d sometimes scream something like ‘Come on, Shinobu! Do your best!’ and then shout the same thing with more emphasis at Sekimoto, depending how much trouble the wrestler was in at the moment. In the final minutes of the match, the superfan started yelling ‘Please, both of you! Try your hardest!’ This man represented the general atmosphere of the crowd at Korakuen this evening, albeit slightly more animated than most fans.
Sekimoto pulled off a number of his signature maneuvers, including his big boy version of the Superfly Splash from the top turnbuckle, flipping the ‘I Love You’ gesture and everything. Shinobu’s still alive. The just over-half capacity crowd sounded like a sold out one as Shinobu continued to hang around. At this point, the crowd was decidedly behind Shinobu. They wanted the upset.
Sekimoto with a stiff lariat in the corner, followed by a heartless brainbuster. Count of two. Sekimoto howls into the crowd, then takes Shinobu’s head off with lariat. You could hear the smack of bone and organ echo to the top of the hall. Count of two. Crowd spouting asymmetrical noise. Sekimoto executes his dead-lift German Suplex hold, the same move that put Shinobu away last summer at Korakuen, the same maneuver that Sekimoto pinned him with at Ueno Park in May during a six-man tag. Count of two. Shinobu rolls out of the hold and slaps on a juji gatame cross-armbreaker. Sekimoto tries to power out of the hold; he stands up and tries to shake off that small guy in pink tights. No luck. Shinobu latches on like a leech and locks in even tighter than before. Sekimoto has no where to go. He writhes around like a dying fish in the middle of that filthy ring. He taps and the crowd simultaneously gasps. They wanted the upset, they got the upset.
In a lot of ways, this was a perfect wrestling show. It had high quality athletic performances with variety and drama. It was timed perfectly, from the time of the matches to the intervals in between matches. It exposed me to both young, fledgling wrestlers and recently seasoned pros on the scene. So please, don’t write Big Japan off as ‘that death match promotion.’ BJW is not that. Well, not only that. Of course they have rather bizarre and sickening bouts involving nailboards and lightubes and lots of real blood, but the guys doing it can actually wrestle, unlike some of the hacks you might see in the regional indies over in the U.S. It’s very obvious that these men know what they’re doing and they are good at it. They’re professional wrestlers. They are craftsmen and they have their craft down. And it was only a small portion of the card! The rest of the night was rounded off by great younger, very raw talents that seem to be driven more by their passion for the art more than anything else.
So before you write off Big Japan as ‘the death match company,’ take a chance on a whole card, or if you’re in Japan check them out live, because the best part of what the promotion does is something that can only be captured in a live, three-dimensional setting. I know that’s impossible for the majority of English speakers reading this, but still. I’m vouching for them.