Inside Wrestle Kingdom: Japan’s Craziest (And Quietest) Pro Wrestling Event
Whether you watch wrestling religiously or not at all, we can assume you’ve heard of the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment). Legends like Ric Flair, Randy “Macho Man” Savage, and The Ultimate Warrior are our childhood favorites, and superstars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena have launched themselves from the ring into the Hollywood stratosphere. WWE continues to grow at a rapid pace, building its own content from reality shows to cartoons…
So when people find out I enjoy wrestling, they automatically assume I mean the WWE. Certainly, I watch the company’s shows — It’s a large hub where fans can come together and bond through a love of a certain heel or a hate for a certain face but, WWE isn’t the only place to get your wrestling fix. In fact, there are many other wrestling companies, albeit the underdogs, who get less notoriety. Because they are less corporate, the storylines have the accessibility to be more creative and less campy, the matches less PG, and ultimately more fun if you’re going for that realness thing…
Enter New Japan Pro Wrestling. Founded in 1972 by Mixed Martial Artist and Wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, NJPW has recently skyrocketed into world view. The WWE has even started eyeing New Japan Superstars for their company. Just as WWE has its yearly Wrestlemania, NJPW has it’s own major event called Wrestle Kingdom. I’ve been very lucky to attend both these events three years in a row. Certainly at its core, both experiences are mighty satisfactory for a wrestling fan but, the experience coming from different cultures and promotability distinguish them in many ways.
NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom has continued to increase heavily in popularity. Every year that I go, the line to enter Tokyo Dome becomes exponentially longer. I see more and more “foreigners” travel across the globe to Japan to watch the biggest Japanese wrestling event of the year. Merchandise gets sold out at a much quicker rate. Everyone is wanting a taste of the every growing hype of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
What I love about the New Japan experience is the type of crowd it brings in. Coming from a culture of respect, the crowd is much more quieted and reserved during the matches. In some cases, you can hear a pin drop and that is no exaggeration – except for the occasional “Okada” chants. (Kazuchika “Rainmaker” Okada is the main star in the promotion, and he is the first Japanese wrestler to top the list of Pro Wrestling Illustrated’s top 500 wrestlers). Superstars receive a lot of respect and even the biggest heel won’t receive wasteful, overused name-calling. The experience on its own is a lot more respectable and honorable if I dare say, especially when the majority isn’t trying to be the loudest section in the arena.
This is quite different from the wrestling events that I’m used to attending stateside. Our American culture thrives on having a say in what we are experiencing. A wrestler walking down the ramp will get either loud cheers or jeers, drowning most of the music accompanying the athlete. Sometimes, I’ll be sitting at my seat and it breaks my concentration when the people in my section are noisy and rambunctious, even waving and blocking the view of other guests with their homemade posters in the air. A huge part of going to a live wrestling event in America is audience participation: The cheers we create from “Let’s go Cena!” to “Cena sucks!” are made for audience to challenge each other with a back and forth rebuttal. In fact, It’s an honor in America to get the crowd going. If the crowd is silent, we consider the match a “bathroom break” or quite simply boring.
In Japan, the silence and muted audience is a form of respect. We are watching the show, and I don’t feel the need to participate verbally in the action. My experience watching a Japanese wrestling event is much more concentrated. I get to purely enjoy the match much more, without the influence of someone booing or someone raving about the wrestler in the ring. It allows me to really pay attention to the match, the moves, the facial expressions, and even take much more notice of the delicacies of the wrestlers moving with each other. Honestly, I much prefer it that way. I feel more engaged and interested with the specifics of what I’m observing. Even during an American event, I’ve always been the quiet one.
When I watch Wrestle Kingdom live, there is no commercial break or selling point to use as a concessions stand break. When they say it’s a 4-5 hour show, it’s literally that long of a show of non-stop action. When Wrestlemania says it’s a 4-5 hour show, you can bet that if you shaved off commercials and self-promoting minutes, it would be cut in half.
For this year’s Wrestle Kingdom 12, WWE legend Chris Jericho made his way into the New Japan ring, and while this technically wasn’t the first crossover between the two companies, it definitely was historical: It sent a definitive message that New Japan is a force to be reckoned with. In fact, the Chris Jericho vs. Kenny Omega match was the highest rated New Japan match on their streaming network. I recognize that throwing a WWE legend like Chris Jericho can only be good for both companies, as he represents the liaison and possibilities of the future between both promotions. I’m certainly happy for them, as I want them to grow but, I don’t want to see Wrestle Kingdom change in caliber or culture.
Many of NJPW’s athletes eventually accept new contracts with the WWE, of course. WWE has taken noticed of the formidable athletes on the Japanese roster and have began plucking them to their company. AJ Styles, Finn Balor, and Shinsuke Nakamura have all made the leap. As happy as I am for them to have finally made it to what is considered the pinnacle of wrestling, their performances thrived in New Japan. There’s something that gets lost when you have to sell a piece of your soul for that level of success and fame. A lot gets lost leaving that Japanese audience and going into a more rowdy, campy one.
Every time a wrestler speaks in the Japanese squared circle, it counts. Every single wrestler who goes into his match is respected and appreciated. Being an underdog with less visibility in some sorts allows for NJPW to maintain their own unique identity. The fun these wrestlers have in the ring are reflected.
The one thing I will say that is lacking in the NJPW world is the female representation. WWE has cleverly taken the temperature of the culture and has used it to their advantage. In the past year, they’ve had their first women’s Money In The Bank ladder match, Iron Match, Main Event, and Royal Rumble. It’s our turn to show that “strong” isn’t just an adjective for men. Kairi Sane and Asuka – both from Japan but currently under the WWE umbrella – are arguably the best women’s wrestlers in their faction today. Both were plucked from a Japanese wrestling promotion. Kairi’s elbow drop is mutually gorgeous and deadly. Asuka remains undefeated.
All sorts of wrestling promotions have their unique qualities. New Japan is no different. They entertain with arguably the best matches out there. Less commercials, more quality. Less chatter, more respect. The wrestlers can bleed without being censored, and you can really feel them loving their practice. They do it for the art, not for the fame or fortune. And as a viewer and fan, it really seeps into the practice.
What I mean by this is without the confinements of ad deals, being on a PG network, or other such corporate situations and agreements, the wrestling events (at least in my perspective) are a whole lot less campy. The wrestlers in New Japan still have a wacky alter egos, but because there are a lot less limitations and restrictions to what they can do they seem to have the ability to really get into character. The personas are just as over the top as their WWE counterparts but, somehow much more credible. If I took Okada’s counterpart Randy Orton, or Tanahashi’s counterpart Cena, and I were to guess which one would win clean in an event, I’d go with the Japanese wrestlers hands down. We don’t have to worry about a huge disappointment with the results of a match in the way we do with the WWE — which quite too often entails a lot of silly swerves resulting in a disappointing win to push someone over. A lot of it makes no sense, and I seldom get that watching NJPW.
Whether you’re a casual wrestling fan or a die hard one, I encourage you to get out there and discover and attend different wrestling events in your area. Indie wrestling promises a more intimate show. Most of the time, it actually makes it more enjoyable that you don’t have to watch it on a big screen even though you’re in the actual arena. New Japan feels just like that: An intimate showing despite how massive Wrestle Kingdom gets year after year. It has somehow managed to maintain that breath of realness that WWE lacks. So goes with the corporate world.
So go ahead and check out some wrestling events in your area, take it with a grain of salt. Yell at the heel, praise the face. Watch the dance of wrestling. You’ll thank me.